This nation’s discussion about Confederate monuments is an essential one. It is important to expose the fallacy that the Confederate States of America were engaged in a noble defense of state’s rights; it is crucial to point out that the leaders of that ill-fated nation were engaging in treason against the United States.
And while serious discussions must be held, valuable discourse is obfuscated when the discussion devolves into violence or vandalism. Such was the case last week when Confederate monuments resting on private land near Ridgefield were defaced. One marker was covered in black tar; another was covered in red. Portland-based antifascist activists reportedly contacted The Portland Mercury claiming responsibility for defacing the monuments.
Vandalizing private property is a criminal act, and we hope the perpetrators can be held accountable. Equally important, such acts undermine the moral authority of critics who oppose such monuments.
When the issue remains in the realm of discussion and out of the domain of criminality, that moral authority is inarguable. Defenders of the Confederacy have argued that monuments reflect deference to Southern heritage and acknowledge an important part of the United States’ past. But such arguments fail to stand up under scrutiny.
The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of humanity, attempting to secede from the United States in defense of the indefensible institution of slavery. To quote Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, his nation’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”
This amoral foundation for a nation has undergone a century of revisionist history by apologists. The trope is that the South was defending the rights of states and then defending itself against northern aggression during the Civil War. In truth, the South seceded in an effort to preserve slavery, and any assertion to the contrary is blatantly false. As South Carolina’s secession declaration read, the states’ primary reason for leaving the United States was “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”
All of that remains relevant in the debate regarding monuments to Confederate leaders. Earlier this year, New Orleans’ removal of four statues resulted in a powerfully eloquent speech by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. A little more than a week ago, attempts to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee led to a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and violent clashes between protesters and counterprotesters. Notably, most Confederate statues were not erected until decades after the Civil War and until the institution of Jim Crow laws, making the monuments an ode to white supremacy rather some noble cause.
In its own way, the barely noticeable Jefferson Davis Park near Ridgefield plays a role in the debate. Monuments to Confederate leaders on public land are indefensible; they signal tacit government approval of those who fought against the United States. But monuments on private property must be viewed in light of the First Amendment. We might consider them offensive, but they must be dealt with through legal means rather than vigilante justice.
Jefferson Davis Park, where the monuments reside and where Confederate flags are routinely flown, is an offensive tribute to a lost cause that was built upon indefensible reasoning. But logic and verbal protests will provide a more effective rebuke than vandalism.