Edward Coles, as Michael Barone tells us in his dazzling piece on the Southern conundrum, was a young southern prince of plantation nobility. He served for a time as a clerk to James Madison.
One fine day, he walked out on his heritage, left his home, friends, family, and all he had known. He went with his slaves to what is now Illinois, where he bought them parcels of land and then freed them. He then helped prevent the legalization of slavery at his new home state's constitutional convention, creating a state and a culture in which an Abraham Lincoln could thrive. Later he became the second governor of Illinois.
Doubtless, the people on Twitter today demanding an end to Lee statues, Lee Highway, and the name "Lee" itself imagine themselves as one with Coles in his noble stand against an extreme form of evil. But Barone will have none of it. Largely by inference, he points out two things. First, whereas Coles made a brave and lonely break with the presumptions and assumptions of the culture around him, today's noble crusaders against stone Stonewall Jacksons are nothing but the most tame of conformists, attaching themselves to the It Cause of the moment, reflecting the ideas of the culture around them, which they did nothing at all to create.
Second, while Coles was willing to give up his old life and take a huge risk on creating a new one, today's culture warriors have nothing to lose, and in their quest to build up their own self-esteem are losing nothing. To them, Barone has this to say: Unless you are honestly, utterly, and totally sure that in Coles' place you would have done exactly what Coles did -- leave everything you know for the sake of a theory -- do not dare to reflexively judge those who fell short of these extremely high standards. Coles endured counter-pressures that today's judgmental crusaders cannot begin to imagine, and he had far more to lose than they ever will understand.
Speaking of pressures, these people know too that, were they in the shoes of the modern Republicans, they would also stand up to Trump, denounce him unequivocally, and either refuse to take part in his government or resign from it. But this belief in their own virtue again ignores the circumstances of the actual moral actors in today's drama.
In early 2016, Trump had been slammed left, right and sideways by all of the candidates. Not only was this completely ineffectual, but it actually seemed to make him stronger. In similar fashion, Joe McCarthy had once been slammed right and left to no avail. President Truman's failure to have any impact at all would cause President Eisenhower to adopt his "hidden hand" strategy against McCarthy, and future presidents Johnson and Kennedy to pull in their horns and lie low, lest they should unwillingly help McCarthy's cause.
There is one other consideration. When the head of state looks increasingly shaky, it is sometimes the patriot's job to join him to keep things in order, just as when one can, one tries to sit beside a drunk driver, keeping one hand on the wheel. "Speaking out" can at times be useless or even counterproductive.
A new president deserves a chance to succeed, and then to be proven unworthy, by his own words and deeds. And impeachments succeed only when handled reluctantly by those who truly gave him a chance and discovered it to be a mistake.
On the other hand, false moral grandeur concerning great matters such as this is really not grandeur at all.
Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."