Portraits and Principles: Lee Chapel Portraits Replaced
By Nathan Richendollar ‘19
After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, Donald Trump set off a media firestorm when he claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides” of what turned into a veritable street brawl on August 12. Understandably, people of all political stripes were incensed that the leader of the semi-free world, in his official capacity, would suggest a moral equivalence between a thuggish bunch of neo-Nazis carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” (yes, they seriously chanted that) and counter-protestors, many of whom were locals fed up with the medieval antics. President Trump seemed convinced that some protestors were there only to voice discontent with the city’s decision to remove a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee, and Trump unequivocally denounced all racism and bigotry present at the rally in an official address. Nonetheless, the “very fine people” comment, whether made in misunderstanding of the rally’s attendants or not, stirred a powerful backlash. In denouncing the president’s comments, many people were channeling Edmund Burke, who once said, “One who confounds evil and good is an enemy to good.” Thus, I find it ironic that Washington and Lee has chosen to draw a moral equivalence, even if unintentional, between George Washington and Robert E. Lee by removing both of their military uniform portraits from Lee Chapel and replacing them with civilian attire portraits.
In September of 2017, after it became clear that the Unite the Right whackos had made Robert E. Lee a much easier figure to attack, the Spectator staff, myself included, wrote a special series of reflections on historical statues and the issues surrounding their removal. Therein, I argued that a majority of those advocating for removal of Confederate statues and monuments, or a minimization of their exposure, had not properly articulated a limiting principle on these removals, and that by extension, many Founding Fathers that owned slaves, or merely held views today considered well outside the mainstream on racial issues, would soon face a similar fate. Notably, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison all owned slaves. Obviously, a distinction exists between the Founding Fathers and Confederate generals. One group fought for the liberty and independence of the United States and ushered in a generally pro-liberty era of US history, one in which the states north of the Mason-Dixon line abolished slavery and several of those south of the line (including Virginia) seriously considered doing so. In the Revolutionary era, slavery was broadly considered a moral evil and only so deeply entrenched as to appear unshakable in two of thirteen states: South Carolina and Georgia. On the other hand, the Confederate states, especially the Deep South ones that seceded before Fort Sumter, clearly broke away from the Union in a gambit to resist any possible federal restrictions on the peculiar institution. Many on the left argue that Confederates, therefore, should be regarded as slavery’s repugnant, deplorable defenders, Robert E. Lee included. But this argument eschews any possibility of assessing the individual moral character of Confederate generals and embracing the complex nature of their contributions to American history. On that basis, Robert E. Lee probably deserves to be honored as a healing figure in the post-war years who embraced the new unified version of America, as well as a visionary college president. General James Longstreet deserves approbation for his progressive views on race relations and the New South despite his Confederate military service, while figures like Nathan Bedford Forrest, the brilliant cavalry commander who found post-war fame as the KKK’s primary founder, should be given much lower, if any, public billing.
While there are legitimate distinctions between those who led forces in the American Revolution and those who fought in the Civil War, these distinctions are also not well-recognized in many academic settings, where all slaveholders are lumped together and utilitarian explanations for the American Revolution (it was just a bunch of upper middle-class white guys looking to pay lower taxes and keep their slaves as the British empire began mulling the morality of the slave trade) are peddled, no matter how false. The arguments to disprove this line of reasoning are manifold. Patriot sentiment was strongest in New England and the nearly slave-bereft backcountry, and weakest in the lowland South, where loyalist sentiment ran high. Most states in the new nation either eliminated slavery or seriously contemplated doing so, and most of the prominent Founders, even slaveholders, viewed the institution as a short-term, necessary evil. But all these arguments cannot absolve Washington from his slaveholding any more than arguments about Lee’s conversion after 1865 and moderate views on slavery can absolve him from leading the Confederacy’s most important army—the Army of Northern Virginia.
The military uniform that George Washington wore in the Peale portrait (his British uniform from the French and Indian War) did not represent an explicitly pro-slavery cause, and as such, it is unclear why it has been removed. If it is for aesthetic consistency with the Robert E. Lee portrait, then such a move elides an equivalence between the two figures. Such a prescription of moral equivalence between Robert E. Lee and George Washington is a false one. Robert E. Lee was a complex individual who made immense contributions to our university and its future and fought for the Confederacy primarily out of his understanding of US citizenship as state-centric. His views on racial issues are not pretty, but compared to many of his southern contemporaries, he took a moderate stance on slavery. Assenting to his relegation from the public square emboldens the left-wing activists who confound all slaveholders in US history to the same “basket of deplorables.” Though the case for preserving most of Lee’s legacy in the public square is strong, the case for Washington is stronger. Washington freed his slaves voluntarily in his will (Lee technically did, but only when their emancipation by federal forces was inevitable anyway), served as the nation’s first president under the Constitution, and ensured our nation’s independence. But these reasons are often not enough to dissuade those clamoring to remove Confederate statues from lumping Washington and other Founders in with their demands. Let us not forget that UVA students in the wake of the Unite the Right rally lashed out not only at the Lee statue, but also urinated on monuments to Thomas Jefferson. Most anti-statue activists do not recognize the distinction between slaveholders of the 1770s and slaveholders of the 1860s. The removal of Washington’s portrait in Lee Chapel to retain visual symmetry shows that his destiny on our campus, and other places across the nation, is inextricably linked to the destiny of other, more complex historical figures such as Robert E. Lee.