WHEN a judge ruled recently that the statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Charlottesville were war monuments and therefore protected by state law, he was merely stating the obvious.
“I find this conclusion inescapable,” Circuit Judge Richard Moore wrote in a lawsuit against the city filed by The Monument Fund and other groups, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It is the very reason the statues have been complained about from the beginning. It does no good pretending they are something other than what they actually are.”
The Virginia Code specifically states that “a locality may, within the geographical limits of the locality, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials for any war or conflict,” from the Algonquin war in 1622 to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. But the statute also states that “if such are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.”
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, and like it or not, localities are not allowed to do much of anything without the General Assembly’s permission. So Charlottesville officials knew that they could not legally remove the statues well before they became a flashpoint between Unite the Right white supremacists and Antifa counter-demonstrators in the 2017 riot in which Heather Heyer was killed.
Even the Southern Poverty Law Center admitted after the ruling that Charlottesville may be “stuck” with the 100-year-old bronze equestrian statues, both of which are inarguably fine examples of the sculptor’s art and listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia’s Historic Register.
Charlottesville residents themselves don’t all agree that the statues should be taken down. In its 2016 final report, the city’s own Blue Ribbon Commission voted 6-3 that the statues be left in place, but that the city take steps to put them in the context of the Confederacy’s defense of slavery and its ultimate defeat by Union forces in the Civil War—a recommendation that was disregarded by the Charlottesville City Council. But the court ruling makes that the most likely outcome.
The larger and more difficult question is whether the General Assembly should amend or repeal the law forbidding jurisdictions to remove war monuments initially erected with their permission if they offend current sensibilities.
The state law should not be repealed. It acts as a firewall, protecting monuments honoring the dead from self-appointed censors who would erase the memory of any historic figures they deem flawed from the public square.
The problem is that all historic figures are the flawed products of their place and time. In addition to Civil War generals, protesters around the country have also called for the removal of the likenesses of America’s Founding Fathers, including Virginia’s own George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, because they owned slaves. The General Assembly should not succumb to attempts to erase the memory of these otherwise great men.
However, life is for the living, and localities should not be forced to live in perpetuity with war memorials that clash with more contemporary views of their own history, either.
The law should be amended so that, on a case-by-case basis, jurisdictions can petition the state legislature for permission to relocate statues of vanquished Confederate generals or other out-of-favor historical figures to private or state-owned property at their expense.
Tampering with war memorials should not be undertaken lightly. Future generations can learn valuable lessons from these mute reminders of the nation’s bloody past, and prevent them from being doomed to repeat their ancestors’ mistakes.