Instead of profiling a historic event or some obscure historical figures, I’d like to discuss something today that I have been meaning to discuss for a while now: the status of monuments, statues, and structures celebrating historical figures. The United States over the past fifty years has grown more and more culturally and racially diverse. As diversity increases the political power of these new voices is bound to rise as well in a free society. One of the consequences of this I think has been to a certain extent inevitable: the taking down of monuments and statues that can be interpreted negatively based on the history surrounding who is being commemorated. Before I dive deeper, I have to state that every historical figure has done something that today we would regard as objectionable. Even Abraham Lincoln, the man who saved our nation and whose efforts resulted in the abolition of slavery, would be regarded by today’s standards as a racist, as would almost every American living in his time.
The purpose of this post is not to say that no monuments, statues, flags, or symbols should be taken down. To freeze the status of all monuments, naming, and likewise in time would be foolish. After all, there are people now and in the future we may want to celebrate over those in the past who have become less relevant to who we are now. I think, for instance, that any displays or flags that were put up as a reaction against the civil rights movement should best be taken down and this gets to my point: we should think of the purpose behind monuments, what they celebrate. Monuments, for instance, to Thomas Jefferson do not celebrate the fact that he was a hypocritical slaveowner. They represent his contributions to the foundation of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence and his eight years as president. Or, for a more obscure example, take the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. This mountain is named after Democratic Congressman Carl Vinson of Georgia for his advocacy for Antarctic expedition. He also happened to be a segregationist who on no occasion in his over fifty years in office voted for a civil rights measure. While this name is not likely to be subjected to change simply because people aren’t going to see this mountain daily if at all, if it were people may agitate for its name change with the justification that as a society we don’t want to value the contribution of a man who was a segregationist. A man, however, is not merely the sum of all his objectionable parts. A monument to Roger B. Taney, a figure recently targeted, is a bit more disputable. Taney was the fifth chief justice of the Supreme Court and although he was appointed by President Jackson, he built upon what John Marshall had done and made great contributions of his own to the court, including clarification of what constitutes “interstate commerce” and expanding the court’s power of judicial review. The problem is that he was most responsible for the worst decision in Supreme Court history: Dred Scott v. Sandford, which not only ruled against Dred Scott’s claim to freedom, but also held that black people were not, could not be, and had never been, citizens of the United States. Thus, we must ask ourselves what Taney is being celebrated: the one who made great contributions to the institution or to the staunch defender of slavery? Perhaps the greatest lightning rod here is Robert E. Lee. Yes, you can argue that his role in the Civil War is a part of Southern history, that Lee was an honorable man and a great general, and you can argue that slavery was not the only reason people fought for the Confederacy. Indeed, a lot of people were drafted! A fundamental question was also whether you identified more with your state or with the idea of a “united states”. Nonetheless, we must confront the reality that by far the primary reason for the Civil War was slavery. This brings us to the most infamous event surrounding monument removal: Charlottesville.
On June 17, 2015, a deranged 21-year old white supremacist whose name does not deserve mention, gunned down nine black attendees at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and wounded three others. Although he currently sits on death row, his posing with a Confederate flag before committing this massacre motivated a new wave of calls for the removal not only of Confederate flags but also of Confederate monuments, names, and sculptures from public places. In March 2016, Charlottesville vice mayor Wes Bellamy called for the City Council to remove the Robert Edward Lee sculpture as to him it constituted disrespect for black residents and that it stood for racism. Local NAACP leader Rick Turner also supported the removal and called Lee a “terrorist”. Another sculpture on the chopping block was of General “Stonewall” Jackson in Court Square. Ultimately, the proposal to remove Jackson was dropped but the Lee proposal moved forward, with the City Council voting 3 to 2 in favor of its removal.
On August 11, 2017, in response to this vote, alt-righters Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer organized the “Unite the Right” rally, which mostly consisted of various factions of the alt-right, including neo-Nazis. Counter-protestors, including members of Antifa, showed up to confront them. The result was a string of violence that ultimately resulted in the vehicular homicide of counter protester Heather Heyer and the injuring of 19 others. The event was ended the following day and the perpetrator of this act who was part of the “Unite the Right” group and does not deserve name recognition, was given a life sentence. Given the historical context, though, should the Lee sculpture actually be removed?
The origin of the sculpture as well as the park’s naming was neither an immediate reaction to the Civil War nor the civil rights movement. The land for the park was purchased by stockbroker and philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire in 1917, and the sculpture itself was completed in 1924. This was, however, a time in which the KKK was at the height of its national prominence and Lee statues were going up in many places throughout the South. Yet, Virginia’s Jim Crow constitution had been adopted in 1902, so whether this sculpture speaks to a celebration of racial oppression is debatable. The argument against it is that absent of it being a direct commemoration of the Civil War, its presence is offensive. However, I see that racism is not the only potential reason to leave the sculpture up. Lee is one of the most famous Virginians, is regarded as a great general (but overrated thanks to the incompetence of his union counterpart George McClellan), is admired for character, and the heroic mythos behind him remains tremendous, at least among white Virginians. However, although he regarded slavery as a “moral & political evil”, he seemed to know this from personal experience as he was known to resort to cruel measures to maintain control of the slaves on his plantation, including severe beatings for escaped slaves and breaking up slave families. I’m not a Lee expert, but it seems to me that the enthusiasm for him that is best backed by history is that he sided with his state of Virginia despite his disagreement with the decision to secede and his correct belief that secession would be disastrous. That was his “honor”, his loyalty to the decision of the people of Virginia. I am ultimately conflicted on the question of Lee’s sculpture.
Overall, on the question of monuments, I am extremely wary of continued pushes for monument removal and I am staunchly opposed to any removals in which the complaint is about views a historical figure held that do not relate to what the monument is commemorating. I see the possibility in the future of all historical figures who ever owned slaves being up for removal from public commemoration, but this would be a tremendously difficult undertaking considering half the presidents on Mount Rushmore owned slaves. I understand that some removals are inevitable in a changing society, but I fear the dismissal of national achievement. For instance, I staunchly oppose the removal of Senator Pat McCarran’s name from Las Vegas International Airport because he is being honored for his contributions to the growth of aviation as well as that of the state of Nevada, not for his prejudiced views on immigrants and Jews. I believe people should be honored for their achievements, even if they held unrelated views that today are at best regarded as antiquated and at worst bigoted.