RFK Has a Surprising and Unexpected Reaction to the Removal of Confederate Statues

News & Politics

Robert F. Kennedy is something of a nonconformist. In fact, his entire campaign is built on contrariness to established norms. If conventional wisdom has an enemy, it’s Kennedy.

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Kennedy was asked by host Tim Pool in a “Timcast IRL” on Friday about his thoughts on the removal of Confederate monuments and statues across the country. He said he “doesn’t think “it’s a good, healthy thing for any culture to erase history.”

“I have a visceral reaction against, against the attacks on those statues,” he said. “There were heroes in the Confederacy who didn’t have slaves and, you know, I just, I just have a visceral reaction against destroying history. I don’t like it. I think we should celebrate who we are.”

He added, “We should celebrate the good qualities of everybody. … If we want to find people who were completely virtuous on every issue throughout history, we would erase all of history.”

I agree with everything Kennedy said except for the “Confederate heroes” who didn’t own slaves. Only about 10% of Southern soldiers who fought in the Civil War owned any slaves, largely because the Southern Congress exempted slaveholders and overseers from military service. The South’s biggest fear was a slave revolt, which is why even when the South desperately needed soldiers in 1864-65, some Southern governors refused to release state militias for duty in the national armies.

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But Kennedy was also wrong in suggesting that not owning slaves absolved the Southerner soldiers of sin. What were Southern soldiers fighting for? 

American Civil War Museum:

One did not need to own slaves to commit to the broad Confederate national vision that was based on slavery, or to fear the outcome of slavery’s destruction. In fact, proslavery ideology had implications for every white Southerner—as theorists consistently and loudly proclaimed that abolition of slavery would unleash a cataclysm of rape and murder. When Confederates rallied to repel “abolition armies” and protect their families, they did so because they anticipated that outcome.

We can try and justify the Southern revolt any number of ways, including the South was fighting off an “invasion.” But the inescapable conclusion is that a soldier or white Southerner didn’t have to own slaves to believe in the cause of creating a slave nation in the middle of the United States. And no amount of whitewashing can remove that stain.

But at the same time, Kennedy is absolutely correct. If we’re going to judge people in the past based on one criterion, we’re going to erase a lot of history. 

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“Values change throughout history, and we need to be able to be sophisticated enough to live with, you know, our ancestors who didn’t agree with us on everything and who did things that are now regarded as immoral or wrong,” Kennedy said. “Maybe they had other qualities that we wanted to celebrate, and clearly Robert E. Lee had extraordinary qualities of leadership.”

That’s truly the bottom line. People are not one-dimensional stick figures that you can fashion into whatever cause of the day you want to hold them responsible for. These are incredibly complex human beings, and to reduce them to their most basic elements and pick and choose which parts you want to condemn them for is anti-intellectual and dishonest.

Kennedy continues to surprise and delight. He’s not going to win. But he’s going to make the race more entertaining as we head into the summer.

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