Portrait of J.E.B. Stuart Removed From Courtroom in Virginia

On August 19 Judge Martin Clark removed Stuart’s portrait from Patrick County, Virginia’s Circuit Court courtroom. Yesterday he offered a lengthy explanation for his actions and is well worth reading. On a side note, if I were teaching my Civil War memory class this year my students would be reading and discussing this document. It raises a number of relevant questions about the intersection of history, public memory and justice.

Judge Clark shares his understanding of the history and legacy of the Confederacy, which he apparently learned in James “Bud” Robertson’s classroom at Virginia Tech. What I find interesting, however, is how the placement of Stuart’s portrait fits into his understanding of the public’s understanding of justice.

It will be an unpopular decision in many quarters, especially given that the courthouse is located in a town named in Stuart’s honor. Still, it is my goal—and my duty as a judge—to provide a trial setting that is perceived by all participants as fair, neutral and without so much as a hint of prejudice. Confederate symbols are, simply put, offensive to African Americans, and this reaction is based on fact and clear, straightforward history. Bigotry saturates the Confederacy’s founding principles, its racial aspirations and its public pronouncements.

He goes on to reference various secession documents in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Virginia. To drive his point home about the importance of maintaining a neutral setting for all citizens Judge Clark asks his white readers to imagine the following scenario.

The courtroom should be a place every litigant and spectator finds fair and utterly neutral. In my estimation, the portrait of a uniformed Confederate general—and a slave owner himself—does not comport with that essential standard. By way of example, I’ll ask my fellow white Patrick Countians how they’d respond to this scenario: Imagine walking into a courtroom, your liberty at stake, and you discover a black judge, a black bailiff, a black commonwealth’s attorney, a black clerk and a black defense lawyer. You are the only white person there. You peer at the wall, and you see a picture of Malcom X—a Nation of Islam member who preached black superiority and demeaned the white race. What assumptions would you make about that courtroom, the judicial system and the black judge who allowed that portrait to remain on the wall? Would you feel certain that you’d receive fair, unbiased treatment with Malcolm X celebrated and honored in the place where your rights are being adjudicated? I would not, and that’s why General Stuart’s portrait has been removed. Given how fierce and divisive the debate over the Confederate flag has become, it should be obvious that symbols convey powerful meanings to many reasonable people, and we do not need this complication in a courtroom.

What makes this such a powerful argument overall has everything to do with the fact that Judge Clark is not an outsider. His roots are deep in Patrick County. His understanding of history comes from a well respected Southern historian. Once again, it goes to a point I’ve been making all summer. This heated debate about Confederate history and iconography is not being imposed on Southern communities from outside. Clark is not a modern day scalawag or carpetbagger. He is a responsible citizen of Virginia working through some very difficult issues.

About Kevin Levin

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30 comments add yours

  1. “This heated debate about Confederate history and iconography is not being imposed on Southern communities from outside.” AMEN! We are weary of defending the indefensible. However, other voices, also not from outside, are going to die hard and the strife will not be without casualties of friendship and camaraderie. So it is sad even as it is necessary and long, long overdue.

  2. Oh, Kevin, this has been going on for so long, that I can’t even begin to tell you: white Southerner vs white Southerner. Sometimes the worst vitriol of reactionary, entrenched racist white Southerners is saved for their fellow white Southerners.

    I think the judge is not quite right about Malcolm X, though. The analogy is effective, but Malcolm went deeper than Judge Clark allows. I recently listened to an interview of Malcolm X by Robert Penn Warren. It was fascinating. Malcolm seems to use his rhetoric of black separatism to illustrate his position, rather than actually advocate black separatism. Penn Warren seems to understand, and the conversation takes off from there. What Malcolm does is hold a mirror up to white society– a very unflattering mirror–but a necessary one.

    • I think the judge is not quite right about Malcolm X, though. The analogy is effective, but Malcolm went deeper than Judge Clark allows.

      Complexity has been lost on all sides. I think it is important to keep in mind that Clark is working on the level of public perception. His characterization of Malcolm works given the point he is trying to make even if it fails as historical commentary.

      • Thirty-five years ago, on my first trip through Virginia, from Richmond to the Potomac, I went into the courtroom of the Orange Co. Courthouse and the Culpeper Courthouse and, as a lawyer then practicing in the trial courts of California, was surprised to see hanging on the walls, portraits of Kemper, Jackson, and one or two other Confederate soldiers. I thought immediately how these images would be intimidating to the African-Americans called to the courtrooms for jury duty. These images have no place in courtrooms, and neither do any image of any person, Washington and Lincoln included. The rest of the Judge’s views, including his adopting Robertson narrative, are objectively wrong, as he, as does Robertson, ignores the reality the war was caused by the white racism of the North equally with that of the South.

  3. Kevin,

    Overall I think you make a great, and critical, point about the concept of public perception. In the scope of things I have no beef with the decision, in fact I agree. I do, however, have an issue with his argument. In the longue durée historical approach I find the judge’s argument deeply flawed and his perceptive mirror, the use of Malcolm X, a bit contrived. Malcolm X is not from Patrick County Virginia and has no history there. J.E.B. Stuart, however, does and his life story is not adequately explained in this judge’s limited use of history.

    Citing the acts and writings of senior politicians when removing the image of an individual is poor approach. Judge Clark would have better served us had he quoted Stuart’s decision to stand against his country, but there is little inflammatory in Stuart’s contemporary notion the he “…would rather be a private in the Confederate army than a general in an army that was going to coerce her.” (indeed, there is nothing at all about slavery in Stuart’s resignation letter or letters to his family at that time). It strikes me me that we are failing our young, our future leaders, when we fail to note that there is a difficult, and in cases like this, an arbitrary calculation in weighing a historical figure’s contributions to the nation or its culture along with his or her failings. For all of his sins, J.E.B. Stuart, was a brave and daring soldier in United States Army – one who is known for his demanding and hard service during the “Bleeding Kansas” episode where he acted as peace-maker. For all of his sins, J.E.B. Stuart, was an inventive man – one who created and patented a piece of horse equipment used for years. And, of course, for all his good J.E.B. Stuart was also a traitor to his country and a slave owner…but then again, so was George Washington. Therein is the fault of this type of historical argument. Who do we forgive, who do we revile?

    Perhaps the finest comment Judge Clark made was this: “The courtroom should be a place every litigant and spectator finds fair and utterly neutral.” This alone makes the rest of his failed argument workable and that is why I agree with his decision. But where can we take that? Do we remove the state flag? That seal has Virtue standing on the neck of Tyranny (clearly indicating American virtue overcoming English Tyranny) and the motto – “Thus Unto Tyrants” with a reverse motto of “Preserve.” But…that flag was first adopted at the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861 thereby casting a shadow over the meaning. Clearly, simplistic arguments are not our friend in cases such as this.

    There is no doubt that the current conflict over memory and heritage is drawn more in line with the political, cultural and social climate of the day. We all live in our time and time will eventually show us as brilliant and as foolish as those, like Stuart, who lived as only they could – in their time. And, lest we forget, there is a monument to Stuart, and Patrick County’s Confederate veterans, on the lawn of the very courthouse we are discussing. What will happen to that?

    • Patrick, the details of Stuart’s life and career are beside the point. A portrait of a Confederate general in a public space in the South is a symbol of white supremacy, which is the point that the judge was trying to make. It is long overdue for such portraits to be removed.

    • I quickly lose patience with the superficial “So was George Washington” argument. George Washington never committed treason against the United States. George Washington came to understand the evil of slavery and regretted participating in the institution, making provision in his will for the freedom of the slaves he had owned decades before the Civil War. George Washington never fought for an entity whose stated purpose for existence was to protect and perpetuate the institution of slavery. George Washington was quoted as saying that if there ever was a conflict between North and South over slavery, he would stand with the North. George Washington stood for an indissoluble Union and would not stand for disunion, much less fight to make that disunion happen. He would have fought to preserve the Union. The confederate attempt to appropriate George Washington was a failure in the 1860s, and the attempt to compare confederates with George Washington today is a failure as well.

      • [Washington] would have fought to preserve the Union.

        Washington knew exactly how to deal with armed insurrection — federalize the militia of various states, and send them to shut it down. You have to put the right man in charge, though, so Washington put Light Horse Harry Lee in command.

      • Al,

        Are you implying that George Washington did not enter into a rebellion against his country – the United Kingdom? I beg to differ as does the historical record. Your rather selective claim that Washington “never committed treason against the United States” is ahistorical and nearly pointless – he committed treason against the government that he was born under and even served under in combat during the French & Indian War. Put simply, Washington was a rebel and a driver of slaves – to “whitewash” his history with patriotic frills is no better than tarring another with selective history.

        As for his slaves, again you are wrong. He left their fate to Martha and she (or her family) decided to release them out of fear. Writing on the subject to her sister, Abigail Adams explained that Martha Washington’s motives were largely driven by self-interest. “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death,” Adams explained, “she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her–She therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.” (1800).

        One need not look too far to find selective quotes by Lee and even Davis that talk about the ills of slavery.

        Lee, “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”

        Davis, “My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses.”

        These are, of course, highly selective quotes and neither reflects the true nature of either man. This, however, is how you are trying to use history. Put simply, Washington was a rebel and a traitor to the government that protected him and paid him as a soldier and was also driver of slaves – to “whitewash” his history with patriotic frills is no better than tarring another with selective history.

        • Are you implying that George Washington did not enter into a rebellion against his country – the United Kingdom? I beg to differ as does the historical record.

          George Washington engaged in revolution while the Southern states enacted secession documents as their justification for breaking up a union governed by a constitution. There is an important difference.

          Lee and Davis held views about slavery that were well within the mainstream.

          • OK, I don’t want to get into a “hair-splitting” debate over GW here. I am simply asking that people stop using overly broad (and comically narrow) views of history to justify a contemporary social convenience.

        • Patrick, I said very specifically that Washington never committed treason against the United States. Hence, his portrait is appropriate anywhere in the United States. If the folks in Britain don’t want his portrait in any of their buildings, that is their right and I wouldn’t have any problem with it. My claim is not ahistorical, unless you can show me where you believe Washington committed treason against the United States. The “Washington too” argument is shallow and ahistorical itself and the product of superficial thought. It is what is selective. I showed very specifically where Washington differed in substantive ways from the confederates. You are completely wrong about Washington and the slaves he owned. Not trusting his family to abide by his wishes, he kept their fate away from Martha’s meddling. He crafted his will so the slaves he owned [not Martha’s slaves, but his own slaves] could not be sold and had to be freed on Martha’s death. As to Lee, you’re right. The cherrypicked quote you provide is taken out of context. In that letter he said slavery was bad for the white man, and that it was a good thing for the black man. In a letter in 1865 Lee said the master-slave relationship was the best that could exist between whites and blacks in the same country. For Davis, again you’re right. That’s another cherrypicked quote taken out of context. They are nothing like what I’m doing. I’m showing exactly how Washington and the confederates were different. It takes more than the shallow thinking of “Washington too” to understand those differences. Put simply, Washington never committed treason against the United States. JEB Stuart and the rest of the confederates did. Washington did not fight for an entity whose purpose was the preservation of slavery. JEB Stuart and the rest of the confederates did. Yes, Washington was a rebel–a rebel against the country that was riding roughshod over his rights. JEB Stuart was a rebel against a country that was protecting his rights.

    • Hi Patrick,

      Great to hear from you.

      I do, however, have an issue with his argument. In the longue durée historical approach I find the judge’s argument deeply flawed and his perceptive mirror, the use of Malcolm X, a bit contrived. Malcolm X is not from Patrick County Virginia and has no history there. J.E.B. Stuart, however, does and his life story is not adequately explained in this judge’s limited use of history.

      I agree, but it’s important to remember that Clark isn’t offering a history lesson with this example. He is engaging in a thought experiment. Malcolm X’s career was much more complicated, but I suspect that most white residents of Patrick County would have a problem with a portrait of M even if he was from the area.

      For all of his sins, J.E.B. Stuart, was a brave and daring soldier in United States Army – one who is known for his demanding and hard service during the “Bleeding Kansas” episode where he acted as peace-maker. For all of his sins, J.E.B. Stuart, was an inventive man – one who created and patented a piece of horse equipment used for years. And, of course, for all his good J.E.B. Stuart was also a traitor to his country and a slave owner…but then again, so was George Washington. Therein is the fault of this type of historical argument. Who do we forgive, who do we revile?

      He may have been a brave soldier and he may have served his country well, but he did get caught up in a rebellion whose goal was the establishment of an independent slaveholding republic. I grow weary of this push to distinguish between the soldier and the cause for which he fought. We don’t make these distinctions in other wars.

      The judge’s argument comes down to his belief that the presence of this portrait contributes to certain perceptions that he believes deserve action.

      Finally, I can’t tell you what will happen to the Stuart and veterans monuments on the courthouse grounds. That is up to the people of Patrick County to work through if they choose to do so.

      • Kevin,

        I think you and I are in agreement when it comes to the judge’s actions. He was right, and thoughtful, to do as he did. My complaint is with his argument. If one can find it, I recommend one read John F. Kennedy’s “Search for the Five Greatest Senators.” The New York Times Magazine, April 14, 1957.

        Here he explains why John C. Calhoun got his portrait placed in the Senate Reception Room – where it still hangs. It is from this broad view that I view this matter.

  4. But it is not beyond the point – it is the entire point. History is not a series of blocks where we get to pull this piece but leave that one. It is a chain of continuous events that needs as complete evaluation as possible. I have no, absolutely zero, heartache with the removal of the painting. I do, however, have a beef against poor history and even worse, using history as a cudgel to support the immediate social climate.

    If you want to remove the portrait because it creates a feeling of racial disparity in a courtroom – that is perfectly fine with me. Not so much if you want to use an incomplete, or poorly developed, historical narrative to justify the action. I really don’t care about Stuart’s portrait. I am concerned about the selective misuse of the fullness of history to justify the action. When they pulled the Confederate flag down in SC they clearly and cleanly expressed the full history of why that flag was there – easily and accurately breaking down the southern heritage aspect of any argument.

    Perhaps you can answer me? Why not remove the Virginia flag from the courtroom – it was born in rebellion? Why not remove U.S. Grant from the $50 bill? He participated in the invasion and dismantling of a relatively innocent foreign country. These, and many other things, are equally justifiable actions under the loosey-goosey methodology of assuaging the living by picking on the dead using selective parts of the past.

    Al Martinich and Tom Palaima, professor’s at the University of Texas at Austin, where they are moving a statue of Jefferson, argue that removal is a mistake. They recommend leaving the statue and adding a plaque in which the present administration apologizes for the past, racist actions of the university. A remarkable “teaching moment,” they believe that removal of the statue equals selective ignorance of a harsh past. As they note in their conclusion…”All human lives matter, including historical lives. For over a century, people of color in Texas were treated as unworthy of the full rights and privileges of American citizens. We should not segregate any part of our past in a moral skeleton closet. Keeping, contextualizing, and explaining the Confederate statues and their history would convert those artworks into tools of historical witness to wrongs done and too long tolerated. And they would serve as conspicuous examples of how to change moral direction within our society.”

    Again, I understand what the judge did. I support the broader elements of his action. I do not, however, support his justification because it is lazy and pandering. We need to embrace that “thing” that, perhaps, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington said best in his book, “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a bum.” We need to embrace the fullness and completeness of our shared history – even when it makes us uncomfortable.

  5. All,

    I apologize. In an earlier post I failed to write out “Jefferson Davis” and wrote only “Jefferson” with reference to the actions in Texas. I apologize for any confusion I may have caused.

    Patrick

  6. The simple answer is that the Confederacy harmed this nation, harmed it terribly and in some ways irreparably and that matters still. Nothing else in our history has hurt us as badly. Therefore there is just no comparison to Washington, Grant, Lincoln, “the North”, nothing.

    • Sandi,

      Of course there is. To deny the totality of history is worse than an exercise in futility, it is vanity.

  7. Might I recommend George Thomas or Lighthorse Lee as replacements? Virginian men who fought for the U.S. and not against it.

  8. Kevin, Interesting read. As I am from Patrick County and I did study under “Bud” Robertson, I wanted to correct a couple of things. First, Martin Clark, who I have known most of my life did not go to Virginia Tech. He went to Davidson and then UVA Law.

    • Hi Tom,

      I was hoping you might add your voice to this post. Great to hear from you and I hope all is well in your neck of the woods. I wasn’t sure after reading the article so thanks for the correction.

  9. This is nothing more than bogus historical revisionism, and selective pandering to feel good. The reality is there were five slave states in the north that fought to preserve slavery in the north (Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia). More than 30% of the states in the north fought engaged slavery, which the north fought to preserve through Union.

    Where is the moral outrage against Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman? How great and powerful it is for the ignorant to pick on the dead who cannot defend themselves.

    Nothing but insulated bullies. Shame on you.

    • You’re completely wrong. The first 4 states you list were border states, not Northern states. The fifth state, West Virginia, abolished slavery. The Union started out to preserve the Union, but slavery gradually took over as the motive for the war.

      What moral outrage should there be against Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman?

    • Your comment reinforces the importance of the underlying empirical data.

      Not every slave state seceded, but every seceded state was a slave state.

      The data shows that in states where over 23% of white families owned slaves, the slave-owners had enough social and political influence to secede.

      in states where less than 23% of white families enslaved others, this tide failed to rise and the states did not secede.

      Stuart took up arms against the United States; Lincoln, Grant and Sherman did not.

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