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An open letter to President Price: Replace Robert E. Lee statue with Anson Burlingame


Dear Dr. Price,

A little more than a year has passed since the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the violence accompanying the removal of statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. We should look to connect the memory and history of that era to a more desirable future, and the attached four-page letter makes the case for honoring someone who might for us today better memorialize the eternal need for tolerance and national unity—both then, now, and tomorrow. There is a better candidate from the same era as General Lee, whose memory could appropriately now be enshrined in that same place in the Duke Chapel—namely, Ambassador Anson Burlingame.

The defacement of the statue of Robert E. Lee in the Chapel alcove at the time of Charlottesville prompted you, as University President, to have it removed and to establish a commission to advise on next steps in navigating the role of memory and history at Duke. Your announcement on August 16, 2018 said that the space where a statue once stood will remain permanently empty, and the University will install a plaque in the foyer of Duke Chapel explaining why the statue was removed.

You have struggled honorably with a situation that offers no morally dominant resolution. However, the vacant commemoration strategy can only prevail as an abdication of our best values, not an affirmation of them, and leaving the space blank affords our great educational institution, Duke University, with only an enduring demonstration of intellectual vacuity. For anyone who cared to notice and grasp the import, the belt buckle on the Duke University statue of Robert E. Lee was adorned U.S. and not C.S.A. Our principle should remain that of promoting tolerance, which is what the Robert E. Lee statue represented for many who esteemed it as symbol of renewed national unity, until hijacked to be a symbol of hate, which your decision unfortunately only replicates.

Anson Burlingame’s service, legacy and merit are compelling and deserving of recognition as a beacon of liberty and leadership needed in every generation, including our own. Burlingame’s advocacy of tolerance and equality created a positive legacy for America to draw upon today for all races, including white America. Burlingame was a fierce Abolitionist in the fight against slavery as a Congressman, and he was a founder of the Republican Party. He was appointed by President Lincoln to serve as U.S. Ambassador to China, and later appointed by the Qing Dynasty to serve as their Ambassador to the United States and Western powers.

Burlingame became the first and only person in the world ever to become an Envoy from one nation to then serve as a return Envoy to the sending nation. He was responsible for negotiating for China with the U.S. what became known as the Burlingame Treaty—the first equality of nations treaty between any Western Power and that country. After securing US approval, he led Chinese delegations to England, France, Prussia, and Russia seeking the same. He died at age 49 from pneumonia at the Czar's court and after his passing, Mark Twain wrote: “It is not easy to comprehend, at an instant's warning, the exceeding magnitude of the loss which mankind sustains in this death—the loss which all nations and all peoples sustain in it. For he had outgrown the narrow citizenship of a state and become a citizen of the world; and his charity was large enough and his great heart warm enough to feel for all its races and to labor for them… He was a good man, and a very, very great man. America lost a son, and all the world a servant, when he died.”

Anson Burlingame was a leader in transitioning us from a country trapped in the racial inequality of slavery to one exemplifying us as a nation standing for equality and human rights around the world. His underlying principles—standing for equality among people and nations—need to be rediscovered and transformed into a contemporary context.  Burlingame stood for values that we still need to defend, perhaps even more so today. White supremacist values cannot be transcended by the emptiness of reciprocal and misplaced hatred for Robert E. Lee, represented by a vacant commemoration that fails to demonstrate the attributes of a character that everyone should be inspired to emulate. The Burlingame connection to Duke is quite simple—a world-class university can embrace one of the most compelling world citizens our country has ever produced—as a means of reconciliation in our own time.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Burlingame Treaty. We should celebrate the life of the first discernably globalist leader of the 19th century, who represents the best of what has made America great in the eyes of the world. Duke University should take up a decision to commission and install a statue of Anson Burlingame as a fitting replacement for Robert E. Lee. In our contemporary era, it also usefully serves to remind that the founders of the Republican Party fought racism and promoted tolerance, embraced the dignity and human rights of all, and established the principle of equality and mutual respect among nations—the standard that has been—and in the future can only be--what will assure our desire that America will remain great. Remembering Anson Burlingame can help guide us to a better tomorrow.


Walter L. Christman, PhD

Walter Christman is a Duke alum, Trinity '83.


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