Although I have always loved learning about history — and possibly because of this fact — I have never been a fan of statues. Even as a child, I thought they were odd totems to the past, lacking any substantive information that would allow those gazing upon them to make much sense of what they represented.
As I got older, I liked them even less. As a Southerner, I came to view statues as tributes to horrible people who fought to maintain an evil system of human bondage — ego-soothing security blankets for racist losers who produced them not to honor history but to fabricate it. Because in the South, that’s mostly what they were. And still are.
But even statues of those far less objectionable have often struck me as more unhelpful than not. The Lincoln Memorial? To be sure, it’s a wonder of artistic design, representing someone worthy of the accolade. Here is a man we rightly honor for his actions to preserve the Union and crush the Confederate terrorists who sought to destroy it. But here too is a man who admitted that if he could have preserved the Union without emancipating a single enslaved person, he would have done that. Here is a man who said he would have supported sending Black folks back to Africa had it been practicable to do so.
In other words, here is a deeply flawed man — which is to say, a human being — whose flaws are essential to reflect upon, as with any of us. But statues and memorials tend to elide those flaws. They obliterate nuance. For that, one needs books. And America is a nation that prefers simple narratives over complexity. I suspect far more people get their history from statuary, horribly flawed historical markers, or, at best, Wikipedia, than from actual volumes compiled by real historians.
All of which is to say that amid the current racial justice uprising, as debates rage about which statues should remain standing, I have found myself largely ambivalent about the fears of so-called “overreach” that grip so many.
Don’t get me wrong. It is repellent that protesters in Wisconsin destroyed a statue of a Norwegian immigrant and militant abolitionist, all because they couldn’t be bothered to Google his name first (or because a handful of pseudo-revolutionaries think fact-checking re-centers whiteness or some such thing). And yes, I think there are real differences between Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, which I’ll discuss shortly. But that said, I find it bizarre that so many people are so protective of statuary as a crucial element of historical memory, and seem to think that their removal, or alteration — or even the debate over which should stay and which should go — amounts to an assault on the national heritage.
After all, how can statues and memorials — which provide only a sliver of information about the historical figure they represent — really teach us about our history? And was this ever the intention of those who erected them in the first place? Were they hoping to encourage onlookers to take a deep dive into the contradictions that mark most heroes, battles, and historical events? Were they looking to inspire a new generation of Americans to engage in complicated historiography to solidify our appreciation for the fullness of the national past?
Of course not. Our national statues were designed as worship altars for the taking of patriotic communion. People don’t look upon them in search of complexity, any more so than the typical person building their family tree on Ancestry.com. In both cases, the observer is searching for straightforward narratives of greatness, intended to instill pride, and little else.
If we are to learn from our history — which is the only real purpose of studying it, unless we think nostalgia a valuable indulgence — we must begin by acknowledging the inherently subjective nature of the discipline. Even history books are subjective in the sense that their authors choose their subjects. No historian is entirely objective, if only because they are making decisions about which persons and events they find worthy of exploration. But at least with books, when certain stories are left out, it is possible for others to interject those narratives into the discourse.
Statues are different. One cannot just build one, in most cases, or place such a thing in a highly-trafficked public location. When we decide to honor people with statues, we make a choice that limits other choices we could make, for reasons of space and money. If we are to make such choices, we should do so in a way that respects history itself, and not just the person being honored. That means doing so in a way that, either through engraving or plaques or docent narratives, adds a fourth dimension — historical depth — to the three-dimensional physical entity itself.
This could be done and must be, with figures like Jefferson or George Washington. For too long, we have accepted the uncritical romanticization of these men and the founders more broadly, and in doing so, have made it impossible to learn from them.
For Jefferson, it becomes possible to appreciate his words in the Declaration, precisely because he clearly did not mean them. What makes them profound is that coming from him, they demonstrate how white supremacy as the nation’s founding practice undermined the nation’s founding principle of liberty from the beginning, even among those we have been taught to revere. Providing this context at memorials to those like him or Washington — whose slave-holding viciousness is well documented — should be unobjectionable to reasonable people.
To oppose the removal of statues to these men is one thing but to object to their re-examination as the people they were is quite another. The first of these suggests, rightly, that we should memorialize these flawed founders because even their hypocrisy — and perhaps especially that — has something to teach us. The latter insists upon deification in a way that serves only the interests of those who would cover up the nation’s crimes so that we cannot rectify them.
On the other hand, Confederate leaders evince no such contradictions upon which we might justify their continued public respect. There is a difference between someone who said: “All men are created equal,” even if his actions betrayed his rhetoric and those who said (as did Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens) that white supremacy was the “cornerstone” of their new government. One provided us with a flawed yet visible escape route from the national nightmare in which even he was implicated. The others would have extended that nightmare in perpetuity and without hesitation. Whether Jefferson intended it or not, he gave us a blueprint, however blood-spattered, for building a functioning democracy. Lee and his cohorts had no interest in such things, nor the vision to even imagine them. And that matters.
And yes, I know some would say that hypocrisy is worse. They insist that with more blatant racists, at least you know what you’re getting. But just how far do we wish to take this maxim? Because I suspect most rational people would rather deal with a hypocrite the likes of FDR — who betrayed progressive principles by overseeing Japanese internment — than Hitler, for whom hypocrisy was not one of his many flaws. Sure, sometimes it’s better to know where people stand when you’re trying to size up their risk to you in a given moment. In that instance, perhaps the hypocrite is worse. But in terms of sizing up their decency as human beings, and surely for the sake of memoriam, the hypocrite is preferable. At least they have (or had) a moral core to which one might aspire, even if they fail or failed miserably to honor it.
Whatever direction we turn, however, let us resist the empty platitudes of those who suggest that statues play a vital role in teaching history or an appreciation for the national heritage. Whatever value they have is only in what they tell us about the choices we have made. Because history — and certainly how we teach it — is just that: a choice.
There is a reason that the Jefferson Memorial cleverly cribs only a portion of what its subject said about the matter of enslavement, for instance. And that reason has nothing to do with a desire for preserving history. It reflects a favoring of memory instead — selective and ideological — at history’s expense. So, in both his autobiography and the rotunda walls, one can read Jefferson’s words that “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” What one will not find at the memorial — but which is the very next line in the autobiography — is the part where he exclaims, just as confidently: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”
There are reasons why there are plenty of statues to white enslavers and defenders of the chattel system but few if any to white abolitionists like Lydia Marie Child or the Grimke sisters or George Henry Evans or William Shreve Bailey, or John Fee. Far from memorializing them, we barely (if at all) learn of them. And why? Because we much prefer to rest on the comfortable but false conceit that those who owned Black people were simply products of their time, incapable of opposing the system of human bondage. Were we to build statues to this other kind of white person, it would explode that lie. It would expose our preference for conformity and cowardice over courage and true wisdom.
There are reasons why proposals for a Nat Turner statue in Virginia have provoked such outrage. Even as Virginians have long glorified white men who killed in the name of white supremacy, they blanch at the idea of honoring a black man who killed to destroy it. For that matter, there are few, if any, memorials to the thousands of men and women who rose up in revolt against their bondage, during the period of American enslavement. Our desire to maintain the myth of the happy captive has overridden our quest for truth.
Anyone who claims statues are inherently valuable reminders of our past is either a liar or a fool. They are editorial decisions made by people with agendas. And so far, the editors have been trash and their choices morally dubious.
If we wish to preserve history, we must learn to rely on those who know how to excavate it, research it, and teach it, rather than relying on sculptures. It is time to set ourselves free from the cold marble and bronze so that we may confront our past without sentimentality or regret. It is time we declare a new independence — this time from the myth-making that has maintained a hold over our nation from the beginning.
There is a reason, so many centuries later, that race continues to be America’s most indelible divide. That reason is found in the stories we tell and don’t; it is located in the history we confront, and that we ignore. If we are ever to become the nation that Jefferson promised, we will have to be the ones who make the words real. We can surely wait no longer for him to do it.