Confederate statues and American iconoclasts

When ISIS destroys statues, they do it in an attempt to erase history. The placement of statues honoring Confederate leaders has a similar purpose: to erase and then rewrite history. 

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Confederate Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery / Image: Mark Fischer (2012), used under Flickr Creative Commons license
Confederate Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery / Image: Mark Fischer (2012), used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, August 15, 2017 — The United States Capitol houses a statuary hall. Located in the former House of Representatives chamber, the National Statuary Hall Collection includes 100 statues, marble and bronze, two from each state.

Each state has chosen two of its native sons and daughters for the honor of a statue in the Capitol building. The oldest states have sent statues of Founding Fathers and early patriots: Samuel Adams (Mass.), Daniel Webster (N.H.), George Washington (Va.), Ethan Allen (Vt.). There are later presidents honored there, like Dwight D. Eisenhower (Kan.) and Ronald Reagan (Calif.). Inventors Philo Farnsworth (Utah) and Thomas Edison (Ohio) are there, with humorist Will Rogers (Okla.), writer Helen Keller (Ala.), and humanitarian Father Damien (Hawaii).

Huey Long (La.) is there, a man of dubious reputation outside his state, but enduring entertainment value within.


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And then there are men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Joseph Wheeler, and Alexander Hamilton Stephens: leaders and heroes of the Confederacy.

When we ask who should be memorialized and who not, there are easy cases and hard ones. Thomas Jefferson is a hard one. He was a man of extraordinary gifts, the giant who crafted the Declaration of Independence and whose role in the creation this country can’t be denied.

He was also a man who, understanding that slavery was morally obscene, kept slaves in order to maintain his home and his wealth. He had children by them and kept them as slaves as well. He released his slaves only upon his death, when it cost him nothing.

Jefferson has a beautiful memorial in the heart of Washington, befitting his status as one of the most important Founding Fathers. Should it stay? Of course it should. But we should understand the contradictions that he represents and the misery those contradictions wove into the fabric of his new nation. He knew slavery was wrong, but he benefited from it, and he couldn’t bear to leave it behind.

Other cases are easier, and we can see them with greater clarity than we can Jefferson, who is too profoundly a part of the best of our history to let us see his part in the worst. Among the easiest cases should be men who betrayed their country in the cause of slavery, and whose leadership and genius were marked by shedding the blood of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans.

Why Mississippi honors Davis and Virginia, Lee is a question their state legislatures would have to answer, but there they are: men who led an insurrection against the country that honors them, men who brilliantly waged a bloody and terrible war against a country whose honor they don’t deserve.

They don’t deserve statues in the Capitol.

The marchers in Virginia called removing the statue of Lee a deliberate attempt to erase American history, and in particular, white history. The removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans was compared to ISIS in Palmyra, blotting out our past so that we can rewrite the present.

We all want to preserve our nation’s history, but which history is that: the Confederacy as noble, lost cause, supported by men who hated slavery but loved their states; or Confederacy as the last western bastion of slavery and continuing inspiration for racial hatred, lynchings and Jim Crow?


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Lee’s stand on slavery contained some of the same contradictions that Jefferson’s did. He wrote in 1856,

“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.”

Lee admitted that slavery was a moral evil, but a greater evil to white men than to black, who in fact profited from it. He admitted that slavery was a moral evil, yet he kept slaves until the war stripped them away, and he sent his men to capture free black men to enslave them.

In Lee we can see the fruit of seeds planted by Jefferson; Lee is the logical conclusion of a chain forged by Jefferson and other early patriots. The tragedy is, they knew it. As great as they were, they weren’t strong or brave or wise enough to not forge it.

But Lee made his own choice, and he chose not to stand against “a moral & political evil,” but to preserve it.

When ISIS destroys statues, they do it in an attempt to erase history. The placement of statues honoring Confederate leaders has a similar purpose: to erase history, and then rewrite it.

There’s a big difference between remembering what Davis, Lee and the others did and keeping them in positions of honor in Washington. There may be a museum quality to the statuary room in the Capitol, but it’s still the Capitol. We don’t need to destroy those statues to reclaim our history, but we should remove them.

The appropriate place to remember Pol Pot is in the killing fields; Hitler, at a Holocaust museum, not the Bundestag; Davis and Lee, at a Civil War museum and a museum to slavery, not the United States Capitol. We don’t need to smash our icons, but we should see them for what they are, and then put them in their place.

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