Jefferson Davis Goes, While Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston Stay

The debate at the University of Texas at Austin over the presence on campus of monuments to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston is not a new one. In 1969 a group calling itself Afro-Americans for Black Liberation made a list of demands on the campus administration that included removing these statues. Jump to August 2015 and in the wake of the mass shootings in Charleston and the very public and emotional debate about the place of Confederate iconography, including monuments, in public places it should come as no surprise that action would be taken.

OK, so here is a little history and a breakdown of the list of options that a committee issued to deal with the monuments and markers:

The panel was charged with examining six statues, as well as a plaque honoring the Confederate dead and other sympathizers of the so-called Lost Cause. All seven were commissioned after the turn of the century by George Littlefield, a Confederate veteran, UT regent and the university’s single largest donor in its first 50 years.

Originally, Littlefield’s will said the benefactor wanted to construct a bronze archway over the campus’ south entrance around which would be statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan and James Hogg, the first native Texan to be elected governor, whose father was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

Later, a statue of then-President Woodrow Wilson, who was born in Virginia, was added to the mix to alter its meaning “to become a monument of reconciliation portraying World War I as the catalyst that inspired Americans to put aside differences lingering from the Civil War.” Littlefield died in 1920, and the statues were scattered across the campus’s main mall.

One of the task force’s recommendations was to move just the Davis statue, as well as an inscription near the Littlefield Fountain that honors “the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ right be maintained and … who gave their possessions and of their lives that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth.”

The other recommendations give [university president] Fenves the option to relocate several or all of the other five statues to a museum or exhibit elsewhere on campus, such as the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History or the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. The Texas Memorial Museum, Harry Ransom Center or even the Littlefield home, all on UT’s campus, are other possibilities.

Today President Fenves announced that the Davis monument will be moved to a campus museum where it can be properly interpreted. Lee and Johnston, however, will remain along with the other monuments and markers. Here is how Fenves explained his decision re: Davis:

While every historical figure leaves a mixed legacy, I believe Jefferson Davis is in a separate category, and that it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating him on our Main Mall. Davis had few ties to Texas; he played a unique role in the history of the American South that is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit.

What that “separate category might be Fenves does not say, but I suspect it has something to do with leading a nation committed to the establishment of a slaveholding republic. As for Lee and Johnston:

The other four figures of the Littlefield Memorial will remain in place. James Stephen Hogg, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan had deep ties to Texas. Robert E. Lee’s complicated legacy to Texas and the nation should not be reduced to his role in the Civil War.

I find this to be utterly unsatisfying as an explanation, not because I want one or all of these monuments removed, but because it fails to call attention to the nature of the problem that lies at the center of this campus debate. Why must the president of a university be so incredibly vague in a statement that is intended to bring to a close a very contentious debate? Lee’s “complicated legacy” is also left unexplained by the president. Whatever interpretation or explanation held by the president that justified moving Davis can likely be applied to Lee and Johnston.

All of them committed their lives to bringing about the same thing. Regardless of the decision made today, let’s at least be honest about that, especially on a campus of higher learning.

25 comments… add one
  • Chris Aug 13, 2015

    I’m a firm believer that the local communities or institutions in question should be allowed to decide for themselves what to do with these relics from an uncomfortable past. BUT (you knew a big old “but” was coming) I adding extra signage to the statue(s) was more appropriate than removing them entirely. Let’s add a plaque that reflects the latest scholarship, puts the lives of the men in question into perspective and context, and makes clear when and why (and by whom) the statues were erected on the first place. Again, I say, let the locals decide this issue, but let’s encourage them to consider how much better their cause could be served by allowing the statues to remain, but by placing them, through interpretation, in their proper historical context. I just think it’s worth consideration…

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2015

      Hi Chris,

      The president is calling for signage around the monuments remaining on the campus mall and the Davis monument will be part of an exhibit in one of their museum spaces.

      • Chris Aug 14, 2015

        Thanks for the reply, Dr. Levin. I was speaking a bit more generally than just the situation at the University of Texas. I think these localities that are debating the removal of Confederate monuments should consider contextualizing them instead. Rather than allowing them to remain as a glorification of an often ugly past, appropriately interpret the statues and monuments, and let them act as a teaching moment for all who choose to visit them.

  • Andy Hall Aug 13, 2015

    Splitting the baby. All those men either have “complicated legacies” or they don’t.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2015

      Exactly.

      • Bryce Hartranft Aug 13, 2015

        Ive had debates with friends on the issue of where to draw the line. They argue that if Davis, Lee and other confederates were bad because of their connection to slavery, then what about founding fathers like Washington and Jefferson that owned slaves also?

        I tried to differentiate between them saying the founding fathers had more redeeming qualities to make up for their slaveholding while confeferates did not, but i feel that is a weak and unsupportable argument.

        Sorry if you have addressed this issue in another post, but I would like your thoughts.

  • TFSmith Aug 13, 2015

    “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

    Every human being is and has been a product of their times; rational appraisal would suggest that every historical figure can be judged as worthy of not of commemoration in later times based on both the values of those same later days and, in fact, what we may be persuaded to see as universal human values that hold across the history of our species.

    The Revolutionary generation in the United States created a nation that remains, even today, one that wrestles with living up to our ideals; one can make the judgment that the balance presumably hangs in their favor.

    The Civil War generation in the United States lived in an era when the decisions individuals made resonate with us today, and for every Lee, for example, there is a Thomas; just as for every Davis there is a Lincoln, and for every Fitzhugh there is a Douglass. One can make a judgment in these cases as well.

    Best,

  • msb Aug 13, 2015

    Do I remember right that Lee was serving in Texas when he decided to renege on his oath to the United States? Doesn’t sound complicated to me.
    And if there’s a space opening up on the main mall, how about moving the life-size statue of Barbara Jordan, lifelong Texan and professor at the University, into it? She’s currently standing round the back …

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2015

      Lee was at Arlington when he resigned.

    • Ted Aug 14, 2015

      Barbara Jordan is honored at Austin Bergstrom Airport. Her larger than life statue is prominently displayed near the baggage claim area and viewed by millions although they rarely notice or stop and read the accompanying text. She is also honored in the Texas Senate chambers. J Davis’ statue at UT-Austin South Mall is not in
      a high traffic area of the campus and is also ignored by most passing by.

  • London John Aug 14, 2015

    Texas has the town of Fort Davis and the Davis Mountains. Seems enough recognition for bringing camels to Texas.

    • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2015

      We have counties in Texas named for both Lee and Davis.

  • Sandi Saunders Aug 14, 2015

    I also support the local government, institution or organization making their own decisions and I expect the broad language is simply to avoid the very unpleasant consequences of touching anything Confederate in the South.

    While it is legitimate to claim ‘they all had a hand in it’ and played roles, many, especially Lee, were not as supportive of slavery as they were of their home region. Having read Lee’s words I cannot believe it fair to claim he “fought to keep slavery” but I KNOW Jefferson Davis did. Knowing Lee’s actions and humility after the war, I do not think he can be said to have glorified the Confederacy, but I KNOW Davis did. And like many before and after me, I forgive a soldier (even a general) faster and easier than any political hot head who set their actions in motion. The issue is and will remain complicated.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2015

      … many, especially Lee, were not as supportive of slavery as they were of their home region.

      Lee’s views were right in the mainstream of white Southerners on the issue of slavery. We really need to move away from these types of claims.

      • Sandi Saunders Aug 14, 2015

        Yes, I do know that intellectually, but I do not want to emotionally. I think I am “stunted” where Lee and the soldiers are concerned. I know it, I acknowledge it, but I cannot let it go. I mean I get it that they went to war and were not “against” slavery, but do you think they went to war FOR slavery? I get the times they lived in, I get that white supremacy was the law of the land, I just do not see it in their writings that they were supporting slavery as an institution, the way I do Jefferson’s, Stephen’s and those who agitated for war Certainly you have seen more of all of that than I ever will so I bow to your knowledge. Am I just being emotional?

        • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2015

          I have little doubt that 150 years from now people will be saying the same things about us.

          • Sandi Saunders Aug 14, 2015

            You mean to explain why we did nothing when atrocity happened on our watch? Now I just want to cry…

            • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2015

              Not necessarily atrocities. They will wonder why we believed something or why we did or did not take action at some point. Could be anything.

  • TFSmith Aug 14, 2015

    There’s always Horace Mann’s approach – be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.

    Did Lee? Did Davis? Did whoever? And how does that balance out over the scope of the lifetime of decisions made by any one of these individuals? Doesn’t seem like that difficult a case or judgment to make for any of these individuals?

    Best,

  • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2015

    If UT wants (for whatever reason) to follow a middle course they could at least argue that Johnston and Reagan were Texans who played roles in the development of this state beyond their actions in 1861-65, unlike Lee and Davis, whose connections to this state are limited and who are both memorialized elsewhere.

    That’s not a particularly compelling argument to make, but at least it’s one based on the historical record.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2015

      I would really love to know what the president believes singles Davis out for removal. As I stated in my post, I have my suspicions.

  • Timothy W Vantran Aug 31, 2015

    Possibly the distinction is that since Davis was the Political Leader of the Confederacy he was more responsible for Confederate policy than Lee as a military leader who joined after Virginia attempted to leave the Union.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2015

      Something along those lines is probably what the president had in mind, but I don’t think it works. No one was more successful in carrying out Confederate policy than Robert E. Lee, in large part, because he believed in it.

  • julius tomerabus Sep 25, 2015

    So, Mr. Levin, do you think the statues should be removed? You don’t really say. I believe Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. I don’t think it fair to place a label on him that he “fought to preserve slavery. As a historian, I would think you would be able to put his life in the context of the times he lived in. I believe RE Lee was a basically good man who happened to be on the wrong side of history. I believe removal of his statue is a slap in his face and treating him as if he were a criminal.

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