By Nathan M. Greenfield
To hear the way President Donald Trump and his acolytes on Fox News speak of the anti-racism protesters who toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, or duly elected local officials who ordered the removal of statues of Confederate generals, one would think that tearing down monuments now seen offensive is a “strange point and new.”
The quote comes from John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. While more than willing to honor God, Lucifer is manifestly unwilling to go on “bended knee” to the newly created Son. Though more than three and a half centuries old, Milton’s words perfectly express the mindset of those who rebel against honoring a person deemed unworthy.
A mere 17 years ago, Fox News and the rest of the Western media gleefully ran pictures of the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussein. Thirteen years earlier, the pictures were of the smashed statues of Romania’s Nicolai Ceausescu and other Eastern European dictators. The enduring image of the 1956 Hungarian uprising is a statue of Joseph Stalin lying on its side. And, almost two hundred years before that, the statue of George III in New York suffered the same fate.
The ancient Romans were more cost conscious; instead of smashing statues, they chiselled off the face of a discredited emperor and carved the new Caesar’s face in situ. Between 726 and 842, the Byzantine Catholic Church experienced two iconoclastic episodes during which thousands of religious icons and statues were destroyed by reformers claiming the authority of the Fourth Commandment, that forbids graven images.
When Trump speaks about protecting “our heritage,” everyone knows he is speaking about white Southern devotees to the “Lost Cause” of the Old South. In doubling down on statues, he and his followers are oddly blind to the historical irony that Evangelical Protestantism, the dominant religious affiliation across the South, was born of iconoclasts.
John Calvin, whose theology underpinned the Puritans at Plymouth Rock, for example, saw statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and other religious art works as idolatrous. In the summer of 1566 his followers in the Netherlands destroyed religious statues, mosaics, murals and frescoes; the scene is, ironically, preserved, in a fine etching by Franz Hogenburg. Fifteen years earlier, bending to King Henry VIII’s will, Parliament passed an act “for the abolition and putting away of divers books and images,” making legal the English Reformation’s destruction of innumerable statues and other works of devotional art.
During the Puritan reign following the English Civil War of the 1640s, Joseph Hall of Norwich recorded one spasm of religious fervor: “Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! . . . What wresting out of irons and brass from the [stained glass] windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework!”
Two centuries later, John Wesley’s Methodists, among the forerunners of American Evangelicals, worshiped in plain buildings with a cross, not a crucifix (upon the latter is a statue of the suffering Christ). The Methodist Articles of Religion warn against “The Romish doctrine of . . . adoration, as well of images.” American early 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards, who preached that lest he give his heart to Jesus, man was held above the burning pit by the filament of a spider’s web, was radically opposed to physical religious imagery.
American Evangelicals did not engage in spasms of iconoclasm for the simple reason that there were few Catholic or Episcopal churches in the back country of the South or on the frontier to ransack. Though they may not recall the clapboard church, like the one on “Little House of the Prairie,” today’s megachurches are assiduous in following the Fourth Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
Why, then, the devotion to Confederate statues? The answer has nothing to do with the artistic merit of, say, a statue of Stonewall Jackson, or with the “remember our history” bromide, trotted out by politicians and commentators who, a decade ago, objected to the history portion of the Common Core Curriculum. Most of the statues of Confederate generals and politicians do not date to the 1860s but, rather, to the early 1900s and were paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. A goodly number went up in the middle 1950s, not to honour long dead Confederates but to put down a marker against the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education that overturned the doctrine of “Separate but Equal,” which was, of course, a lie from the get go.
More than a few have noted that America is the only country where the losing side, the Confederacy, is honored in its public squares, where the men who fought to maintain the lash and human bondage, are placed on plinths that the descendants of slaves walk past every day.
As we saw after Charlottesville in 2017, and just last month when the mayor of Richmond, VA, ordered the removal of a statue to him, the debate about Confederate statues always boils down to one person: Robert E. Lee. For generations, almost everything most Americans knew about Lee was learned while parsing Bruce Catton’s compare/contrast essay “Grant and Lee at Appomattox” in English 101.
Catton’s Lee was “the age of chivalry transplanted to a New World . . . [he] “embodied the noblest elements of this aristocratic ideal. Through him, the landed nobility justified itself.” For four years, “the Southern states had fought a desperate war to uphold the ideals for which Lee stood. In the end, it almost seemed as if the Confederacy fought for Lee; as if he himself was the Confederacy . . . the best thing that the way of life for which the Confederacy stood could ever have to offer. He had passed into legend before Appomattox.”
The legend was certainly helped by the fact Lee looked the part, and like Alexander the Great, made sure that all knew the name of his horse (Traveller). Just weeks after surrendering he posed in full uniform for a spiffy portrait by Matthew Brady — an early proof of what Canadian military historian Mark Milner told me about the Germans in World War II, that “Fascists have good kit.”
Left out of Catton’s encomium — and the history books when I was in school in Brooklyn — is the fact that Lee was indicted for treason, the only crime defined in the Constitution; Lee managed to run out the clock and was included in a general amnesty in 1868. Also ignored is the fact that Lee ordered the whipping of recaptured slaves, including a female slave who was also stripped to the waist, and that afterwards their flayed backs washed with brine, as noted in a recent book by John Reeves. Conveniently forgotten is the amount of blood of Union soldiers the “Bold Cavalier” had on his hands, and that, after the war, when president of what became Washington and Lee University, he more than dallied with the Ku Klux Klan.
The hackles from Trump and others about pulling Lee off his perch ignore these facts. They ignore the iconoclastic tradition that feeds into and is part of American Evangelical thought. Instead, they pay obeisance to false gods.
Percy Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias” tells of a traveller to an ancient land who saw the smashed remnants of the great statue to a “King of Kings.” Carved into the plinth are his words, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Around the “colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” The statues to Lee and the other Confederates deserve no less a fate.
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.
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