David Barton Says Lee Wasn't a Racist and Likens Statues of Stalin to Confederate Statues

David Barton
David Barton

On the Joe Pags Show last Friday, David Barton likened Confederate statues as historical icons to the Holocaust ovens and Gestapo headquarters in Germany. In response to my critique of this analogy, Barton gave extended remarks to Austin American-Statesman reporter Jonathan Tilove in an article published today.  In his remarks, Barton said Confederate statues were celebratory at the time they were put up  in the same way statues of Stalin were celebratory. He also said Confederate General Robert E. Lee was “not a racist in any way, shape, fashion or form.”
Before I critique Barton’s statements about Stalin and Lee, let me observe that Barton clearly declared the evils of slavery and the Confederacy in this interview. While I disagree with his analogies and reasoning, I don’t think Barton intends for his defense of Confederate statues to encourage white supremacist Confederate sympathizers. Having made that important observation, I will say that his reference to Stalin doesn’t work and his defense of Lee is in line with the Lost Cause sanitizing of Lee’s life.

Stalin and Confederate Symbols

Tilove asked Barton about his comparison of Nazi atrocities and Confederate symbols. Barton didn’t address that point but pivoted to a new analogy involving Stalin. From Tilove’s article:

I [Tilove] asked if there wasn’t a difference between the maintaining of Nazi sites in Europe as a grim reminder and the heroic glorification of Confederate memorials.
Aren’t the Confederate memorials celebratory?
They were for that period of time, in the same way that the Stalin statues that are still up in the Soviet Union were celebratory for him, but now you point at them and go, “Look, look at what they represented”, but that was in a period of time. They are up because they  were celebrated at the time.
And there’s no doubt in my mind that every one of those Confederate heroes was celebrated at the time because of where they were, the part of the country they were in, the people that supported them, but they were racist. That’s an easy teaching lesson at this point. Or it should be.

Stalin is not a good illustration for Barton’s case. In Russia currently, Stalin is returning to a position of esteem. According to USA Today, ten new statues of Stalin has gone up since 2012. Recently, Vladimir Putin criticized the “excessive demonization” of Stalin. Stalin is a respected figure in Russia as indicated by recent polls there.  Statues of Stalin were celebratory when they were put up and they are still celebratory in Russia. Barton isn’t correct that Russians look at the statues and derive some lesson about the evils of Stalinism.
Surely, Barton would not want the same result for Confederate symbols here. The Confederate statues were celebratory when erected and since the Confederacy shouldn’t be celebrated, it is past time for the monuments to come down.

Robert E. Lee

About Lee, Barton said:

What do you think is the appropriate approach to the Confederate memorials?
It is kind of a case by case thing. With Robert E. Lee, I totally dislike the Confederacy, I have no sympathy for them at all. But Robert E. Lee is not a racist in any way, shape, fashion or form. He fought for Virginia, and there’s no indication of racism on his part. Now you want to go to Nathan Bedford Forrest, you bet, he’s a founder of the KKK. I’ve got all sorts of problems with him. What those guys did at Fort Pillow, the massacre there of black Union soldiers is unbelievable. So it is a case by case basis in some ways.

Barton’s statement about Lee is astounding. While some of Lee’s biographers have whitewashed his racism, other primary source evidence calls into question such a positive account. Surely Barton has read Lee’s letter to his wife dated December 27, 1856:

The views of the Pres: of the systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly Set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them, their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a civil & servile war. In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly interested in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is Known & ordered by a wise & merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who Sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences ; & with whom two thousand years are but a single day. Although the abolitionist must Know this; & must see that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not create angry feelings in the master; that although he may not approve the mode by which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same: that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every Kind of interference with our neighbours when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others.

Lee’s version of Christianity required him to fight for African slaves stay in bondage because God willed it. God may take thousands of years to correct the situation but, for Lee, that was preferable to the work of the abolitionist. He called the abolitionist’s work an “evil Course.” Lee’s viewed African slaves as needing “painful discipline” before they could be free. This can only be described as some “shape, fashion or form” of racial superiority which Lee justified with Christianity.
Furthermore, there is primary evidence that Lee was not kind to his slaves, especially those who were caught trying to escape. On such slave, Wesley Norris, told his story in 1866.  Lee was executor of the estate of his wife’s deceased father and as such administered the treatment of slaves. Norris described the beatings ordered by Lee for him and his sister. According to Norris, Lee told the overseer to “lay it on well.” I encourage readers to consult Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book on Lee for a fuller picture of the Confederate General.
While I agree statues should be evaluated on a case by case basis, I think Barton’s view of Lee is informed more by the Lost Cause than accurate history. If Barton has evidence that Lee was not a racist nor a supporter of slavery, I encourage him to produce it.
Tilove’s post is fascinating and advances the discussion surround the monuments. I encourage you to read the whole piece.