On Taking Down the Monuments to the Confederacy

To which our historically savvy president responds: “Why not the monuments to Washington and Jefferson as well?” After all, they were slaveholders. Jefferson had deep misgivings about slavery, thought of it as an evil, but remained a slaveholder and not a benign one. Washington promised to free his slaves (they were the property of Martha’s family) after he and Martha passed from the scene. This is not to excuse their slaveholding. The difference between the founding fathers and the confederates, of which our president has no inkling, is the difference between the great legacy of creating a new nation and the singular action that defines the confederacy, a treasonous rebellion against and secession from the republic in defense of an abhorrent institution, slavery. We think of Washington and Jefferson in many ways apart from their slaveholding. The confederacy and slaveholding are inextricably intertwined. But that is not all. The statues that were put up commemorating the confederacy, mostly between 1890 and 1930, were in effect a refusal of its Southern proponents to acknowledge defeat. The Civil War ended only on the battlefield. It continued to be waged by other means: Jim Crow and lynching. And the events in Charlottesville show that the war is not over. The monuments were not simply nostalgia for a lost past. They represent an ongoing struggle against the military outcome of the Civil War. Not to see them in their public setting as a present insult to the descendants of slaves and of those who fought to end slavery is moral obtuseness, if not sympathy for the confederate mindset. The Confederacy should be remembered as part of our history, not celebrated.

What is to be done? Let’s begin with what is not to be done—their destruction or defacement by individuals arrogantly setting themselves up as agents of social justice. To do so is perpetuate the war, not transcend it. The monuments should be removed peaceably by government authority to places in museums or other spaces where they are no longer present in a public space, and, as already been said by many others, contextualized. What the contextualization should say is that the statutes were a defense of racism and a perpetuation of the slaveholding values of the confederacy. But it should also be nuanced, distinctions made between the characters of the confederacy. Jefferson Davis is irredeemable. Robert E. Lee is another story. He was in fact opposed to setting up memorials to the confederacy, because it would not help in healing the wounds of war. As Eric Foner has observed, he was not a slavery ideologue, though he did not oppose slavery. After the war, he did not support rights for black citizens such as the right to vote. He did support the freeing of the slaves owned by his family in five years. There is something of an irony in Lee being the primary focus of the struggle to take down the Confederate monuments. Unlike many of his fellow confederates, he acknowledged defeat at Appomattox, one of the great historic moments in American history. The contextualization should note Grant’s graciousness toward Lee, perhaps reflecting Lincoln’s spirit of “malice toward none.” If Lee were alive today, it is quite possible that he would join the call for the removal of his statue and the statues of others.

Postscript: The artist Adam Pendleton rejects defense of the statues on aesthetic grounds. “The artistic merit is irrelevant. We don’t think about who created the statue of Robert E. Lee and what her intentions were. We think about who and what Robert E. Lee signifies. The Confederate monuments were meant to convey a message that we value the history of oppression.” The aesthetic aspect may be irrelevant, but we need to think about what the making and putting up of the statues signified at the time they were put up—not simply the history of oppression, but the continuing unresolved struggle to perpetuate that history. A nuanced contextualizing would focus less on Robert E. Lee than on the use to which the statue was being put. In opposing the removal of the statues to a museum, the historian Michele Bogart argues that “the meanings and the history that we are able to draw from them in a different site, especially a sort of sanitized site like a museum, are not going to be the same. That is a historical loss.” Does that mean that the statues should be left in place? How then would they be contextualized? Plaques would hardly be adequate. Guided tours devoted to demystifying the statues would still leave these imposing constructions in place. There are no realistic alternatives to a museum. As for museums, they would have to be large and spacious enough to accommodate these monuments, perhaps large open air spaces like the Bronx Zoo.