Where will it end? I understand taking down statues of Confederate generals, especially those put up during the Civil Rights Movement to re-assert white southern pride and a grim determination to perpetuate Jim Crow as long as possible. I can even understand taking down statues of Robert E. Lee, though I personally have always seen him as a tragic figure, not as an unreconstructed southerner. But I’m a white guy living in North Dakota.
But shall we now remove Thomas Jefferson’s statue from the campus of Columbia University because he was a slaveholder, an apartheidist, and the sexual possessor of Sally Hemings? Is it ok to deface his statue at the College of William and Mary, of which he was an alum and which he tried to reform during his time as Governor of Virginia? What about what used to be called, in hushed tones, “Mr. Jefferson’s University” at Charlottesville, Virginia? Should we erase Jefferson from the University he created in his retirement?
And now Theodore Roosevelt. Well, it is true that the Rough Rider said some pretty hard-to-digest things about the righteousness of conquering the American West and crushing Native American resistance to the manifest destiny of the white Anglo-Saxon peoples of the world. He said some nasty things about American Indians. Should his statue be plucked down from its pedestal in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York? TR’s father Thee was one of the founders of that amazing institution, and TR himself contributed hundreds of specimens to its collections from his hunts on several continents? In the statue, TR does appear to be leading aboriginal people, more or less by the scruff, to the Joys of Civilization.
Should Woodrow Wilson’s statue be removed from the campus of Princeton University, where he was president from 1902 to 1910? Wilson was a pretty severe racist who actually removed African-Americans from federal employment, and he had a tin ear for the women’s suffrage movement, too.
Where does it end?
I call this the de-Stalinization of America.
If we are going to topple the statues of everyone who was complicit in slavery, that’s all the Founding Fathers, but especially Patrick Henry, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, and of course the individual who wrote “all men are created equal.”
To his credit, Hamilton was an abolitionist, but that was easier for a northerner from New York than for any southern statesman, and Hamilton worked tirelessly to get the new Constitution ratified, which included the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the postponement of any regulation of the slave trade for twenty years. Where does place him on the Rushmore of American Racists?
Eight of the first twelve presidents were slaveholders. Think about that. Abraham Lincoln himself, the great emancipator, had very serious doubts about the capacity of black people. He did not believe white people needed to mingle with them, and he was a supporter, at times, of repatriation and deportation movements. He’d be called an apartheidist today, though he had some of the most important redeeming virtues of any president.
Where does it end?
If the focus is on Native Americans, well, all of us who aren’t Indians are squatting on their sovereign lands, and in many cases the tribes simply reject any notion that they sold or ceded those lands during the nineteenth century. Easy enough to pluck down a statue of Custer, but are we prepared to give back significant chunks of the Black Hills to the Sioux and the Cheyenne, with interest or breach dams on the Missouri that devastated the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Lakota? There are scores of places in the American West named after George Armstrong Custer, but he is only the easiest and most obvious target of revisionism. Lewis and Clark will have to be imploded (there are scores of statues nationwide), and George Rogers Clark must go, and of course the notorious Andrew Jackson, and John C. Fremont, and Isaac Stevens, and Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Horace Greeley who told American’s restless men to “go west young man.”
If you really want to de-Stalinize America along the lines of our current understanding of Enlightenment, you are going to be stripping the continent bare. Statuary Hall in the US Capitol is going to be a pretty lonely place for Washakie, Sarah Winnemucca, Sequoyah, Po’pay and Sacagawea: the rest will be storage lockers in West Virginia. And almost surely, Stone Mountain in Georgia is going to have to be sandblasted away and Mount Rushmore will need to be reduced to rubble. Let me say this with candor. I don’t see how Thomas Jefferson can survive this spasm of righteousness and outrage. If Robert E. Lee must go, so too must the Sage of Monticello. Are we really prepared to cleanse the continent with ruthless consistency? This is beginning to sound a bit like Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we should give these historic figures a pass just because they did great things in their lives. I welcome the strong and growing national conversation we are having about the oppression, the racism, the misogyny, the white nationalism of American history, and I think some, perhaps many, statutes should be quietly lowered to the ground and stored in museum warehouses.
I’m not against removing statues and memorials now considered offensive, but I think we should be cautious, not precipitous. I’d be more comfortable with counter-memorials or counter-signage along the lines of: “When this statue of Stonewall Jackson was put up in 1962, Alabama was seething with racial tension. The decades of Jim Crow, lynching, and ‘separate but equal’ were being challenged in the courts and on the streets. This statue was put in defiance by the Daughters of the Confederacy. No African-Americans were on the committee. The dedication was attended by George Wallace, who said, segregation now, segregation forever. Stonewall Jackson, who was indeed a superb Confederate general, also owned 132 slaves and said once, black people were made to carry burdens. Such sentiments reflect centuries of systematic repression, enslavement, and racism. Fortunately, we have come a long way. The overwhelming majority of Alabamans now repudiate such views.” Something like that.
I see every offensive monument as an invitation to a new, more historically rigorous set of interpretive panels. Jefferson famously said, “for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” That was about the University of Virginia, built with slave labor. I see each of these crises as a teaching opportunity—to teach the children of oppressors how blind and self-serving their kin have been, and the children of the oppressed that we are determined to face our problematic history face forward, unblinkingly, without defensiveness, without having our feelings hurt by people we have hurt one thousand, one hundred thousand-fold.
H.L. Mencken was a serious anti-Semite. That makes me lose a large amount of respect for him. He’s one of my favorite twentieth century American authors. Not only are his essays fabulously sharp-edged, satirical, often spot on and laugh out loud funny, but he spent a large chunk of his life producing one of the most important books in the United States, his three-volume study of The American Language. Shall we burn his books in the public square in his beloved Baltimore? Oh, my, it’s starting to sound like Berlin 1935 here.
I’m with Hamlet: . “Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?” Polonius in Hamlet says we are “a little soiled in the working.” There are very few saints. Each of my Chautauqua heroes—Jefferson, Roosevelt, Meriwether Lewis, John Wesley Powell, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Walter Raleigh, and John Steinbeck—would have a hard time facing the Devil’s Advocate at a Vatican hearing for sainthood, some more than others, of course. But they are great men nevertheless, and each of them, in my view, contributed so much to civilization that it outweighs their very real faults. I subscribe to the “whole man” theory that any life needs to be seen in the broad context of the times in which she or he lived, the dominant social, political, and economic mores of the times, and that individual’s overall life experience and achievement. The less savory aspects of that person’s life should no longer be ignored or papered over or explained away. That was a habit of American historiography for a very long time. It is still the preferred method of cultural conservatives like Dinish D’Souza, William Bennett, Oliver North, or Lynne Cheney. We must learn to tell the truth, the whole truth, the unvarnished truth. But that is a task for all of us, not just political and social activists and those who sit on cultural committees.
If you want to see it done right—perhaps perfectly—go to the Thomas Jefferson exhibit in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, DC. Every American should spend a day in that magnificent facility.
My point is that we can do this. We can do this right. We can use this national statues and monuments crisis to deepen and widen and contextualize our understanding of our rich, troubled, unresolved story, few moments of which are purely good or purely evil, though there are some of both. Let’s slow down and think about this. Let’s find creative ways to wrestle the great problematic history of American to the ground. Let’s talk this out in a nuanced, thoughtful, generous way. And let’s not be afraid to come to some unpopular or perhaps unpalatable conclusions. In my view, plucking down Saddam Hussein’s statue with ropes and tackle provides only a very temporary satisfaction. What follows in that void, what finds its way onto that empty pedestal, is often not much better than what we swept away.
Context, context, context. Judgment is easy, understanding is hard.
Or as Jefferson put it, "Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for; for none of us, no, not one, is perfect; and were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desert for our love."