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History Matters: Debates About Monuments Reflect Current Divisions

As represented by statues and school names, American history has long overlooked the flaws of mostly dead white males. Taking down their monuments risks a different kind of simplification.

Protestors attempting to pull down a statue.
Protesters attempt to pull down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 22, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
When Mississippi opened the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country four years ago, The New York Times praised it as an institution that “refuses to sugarcoat history.” Now historians are worried that state legislators may be bent on doing just that.

The museum is run by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is overseen by an independent board. A new bill would change that, putting the governor and lieutenant governor in charge of appointing the board. It’s already passed the state Senate and is moving through the House.

Sponsors say they’re only putting Archives and History in line with other commissions led by gubernatorial appointees. Critics complain that they’re really trying to politicize the past. “Who do you think Ross Barnett would have appointed to the Department of Archives and History?” asked state Sen. Hob Bryan, referring to the state’s segregationist governor of the early 1960s.

History, like everything else, has become polarized. The growing debate over monuments reflects the broader political clash between conservatives and progressives about what this country’s core values are and what we should hold dear. Conservative historians tend to extol the nation’s virtues — their sense of its greatness and exceptionalism – while some historians on the left have concentrated on pointing out not just flaws but sins such as slavery.

Monuments have become symbolic flashpoints of the larger debate about race. The 2017 “Unite the Right” hate rally in Charlottesville, Va., was inspired by the city planning to remove its Confederate monuments. Last year, statues much more broadly became a target of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“In many ways, these issues of monuments or school names really only matter when you can say history is happening, when there are particular crises,” says Robert Johnston, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Teaching of History Program. “Switches get flipped. George Floyd gets killed. People recognize that the past does leap into the present and we do think about these things.”

Last year, 94 Confederate monuments and dozens of other symbols were removed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Polls show a slim majority of Americans now support the removal of Confederate monuments. Not everyone agrees, but it’s easy to make a case against public glorification of white supremacists who were traitors to the nation. 

But now there’s controversy not only about the Confederacy but founders such as Washington and Jefferson, who were slaveholders, as well as figures such as Lincoln and Grant, who were central to the abolition of slavery. During last year’s racial justice protests, statues — even some honoring abolitionists in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Madison, Wis. — were toppled or damaged.

“It’s an odd slippery slope that we’ve embarked upon,” says Phillip Magness, a historian at the American Institute for Economic Research, a free-market think tank. “They’ll go around and look for figures that have some mark against them in the past, which may be a secondary aspect of their career.”

In January, San Francisco’s board of education voted to rename 44 schools named after figures including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere and current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. In Chicago, an advisory committee named by Mayor Lori Lightfoot has identified 41 statues for possible removal, including five statues of Lincoln and the Ulysses S. Grant monument in Lincoln Park. 

Johnston says it’s healthy to have this public argument, which makes people think like historians — engaging with the evidence and questioning why figures of the past were significant and how they were flawed. Still, he worries that a wave of historical revisionism might wipe out anyone who has any kind of blemish. 

“Although Lincoln was not the only author of the abolition of slavery, he had quite a bit to do with it,” says Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern University. “He represented a very important segment of white Americans.”

Symbols matter. The fact that people are arguing about monuments and school names shows they’re concerned about history and what the nation or a particular community makes of it. They represent not only the individuals depicted but what we value about the past. 

“Everything is in the mix, from monuments to pop culture, what gets taught in school and movies and musicals like ‘Hamilton,’” Masur says.

How to Define a Nation

History must be curated. The past includes everything that has ever happened, so its lessons are necessarily edited and shaped to highlight the most important individuals, events and themes. That work is never left solely to historians. 

All nations seek to identify the core values and traditions that help to unify them as a culture. In a celebrated 1882 lecture called “What is a Nation?” the French scholar Ernest Renan placed shared memory at the core of national identity, suggesting that a given people are animated by virtue of “possession in common of a rich legacy of memories,” along with their determination to live up to that legacy in the present.

Nations look for glory in their own pasts, with political leaders seeking to show themselves as embodying the virtues embedded in the national character. That’s one reason why regimes seek to downplay the dark sides of the past. Think of Turkey denying the Ottoman genocide of Armenians beginning in World War I and lobbying other nations, including the U.S., not to recognize it. Or China censoring mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. 

In recent times, there’s been more official recognition of past horrors. Dozens of countries followed post-apartheid South Africa’s example by holding truth and reconciliation commissions to investigate human rights violations. Over the past quarter-century, numerous national leaders have issued formal apologies for treatment of indigenous people, slavery or other crimes.

The United States has apologized to groups including Native Americans, Tuskegee Syphilis Study victims and Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. In 2005, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution apologizing for failing to act on anti-lynching legislation

Congress has never issued a formal apology for slavery. President Biden supports studying the question of reparations for slavery, with creation of a commission under debate in Congress. 

Dismantling the Past?

But if history is no longer solely written by victors for their own glorification, there’s disagreement in this country about when re-examination becomes unduly negative — not just harsh but something that threatens to undermine national resolve.

The New York Times1619 Project, which re-examined the nation’s history through the lens of slavery, won a Pulitzer Prize and is now widely used as a teaching tool in schools. Conservatives have lambasted the project, alleging it’s not just factually inaccurate but deeply misleading. 

“This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom,” former President Donald Trump complained last September at a White House conference on history. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

At the event, Trump announced the creation of the 1776 Commission. Just before he left office, the commission issued a report claiming the nation’s founding principles are under siege by a leftist view of history that promotes “at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.” 

Professional historians were quick to deride the report as sloppy and more akin to propaganda than a serious scholarly exercise. Biden wasted no time disbanding the commission.

Critics of Lincoln

The commission was not Trump’s only attempt to shape the past. During a Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore last year, Trump called for the creation of a collection of statues called the National Garden of American Heroes. “Across this nation, belief in the greatness and goodness of America has come under attack in recent months and years by a dangerous anti-American extremism that seeks to dismantle our country’s history, institutions, and very identity,” according to Trump’s executive order formalizing the idea.

Trump’s garden won’t be built, but the frustration he expressed remains. Republicans have made “cancel culture” one of their dominant complaints during the early days of the Biden presidency.

And it’s not only conservatives who are dismayed by the fact that the monument debate has spread beyond the Confederacy to target those who ended it. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and pushed for the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Grant not only defeated the Confederate Army, but as president prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan

But Lincoln has lately drawn increased criticism for his treatment of Native Americans, including the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in 1862. Grant’s brief ownership of a slave before the war has become a flashpoint. 

“Lincoln is not someone that I typically tend to admire or see as a hero, because of these specific instances where he has contributed to the pain of the decimation of people — that’s not something that I want to ignore,” Gabriela López, the president of the San Francisco Board of Education, told The New Yorker.

Attacking Lincoln and Grant raises the question of where the line should be drawn — or whether it can be drawn anywhere. It’s impossible for any figure from the past to reflect perfectly the values of the present, particularly politicians who by the nature of their jobs must engage in compromise. 

It’s worth noting that Grant was long rated a great general but one of the worst presidents — largely thanks to the same Southern Lost Cause propaganda effort that led to the proliferation of Confederate monuments — but his stock has shot up among historians during this century.

“There is absolutely a place to have scholarship or discussion of figures we’ve honored, but recognizing that they have marks against them or are morally suspect requires getting into the complexity of it, not canceling them outright,” Magness says.

History Is Complex

Last year, presidential historian Alexis Coe published a biography of George Washington called You Never Forget Your First. “I take readers very slowly through the wooden teeth and the cherry tree myths to show we have never talked or been allowed to think critically of our founders,” she says. “As such, the story of our first presidents who established this country, all the way up to the present, aren’t quite true — and the untruths happen to be connected to some of our greatest problems as a nation at this very moment.”

At the same time, Coe took great pains to point out that Washington is essential to our founding story. “Yet there are conservative historians who regularly accuse me of cancel culture,” she says. “And on the left, there are people who regularly say to me, ‘I don’t want to learn about Washington, he owned slaves.’”

Recognizing that figures like Washington were imperfect should not lead to their erasure, Coe says. Even on a personal level, acknowledging that he was a loving stepfather but a sometimes negligent son is a recognition of the complexity involved in being a human being. On a political level, grappling with presidential flaws help tell the story of how the nation improved and where it has fallen short. 

In other words, history — real, complex history. Monuments, even accompanied by explanatory plaques or signs, offer only the briefest thumbnail sketch of what a historical figure may have been about. They certainly can’t offer the sort of nuance or larger perspective of a full-blown biography or historical monograph. “Most folks seem to think that history is kind of open and shut about the facts, but what scholars do is argue about everything,” Johnston says. “It’s really that rich and delicious debate that is the essence of history.”

But the question now is whether there really is rich and delicious debate. San Francisco’s school renaming process appears in some instances to have relied on Wikipedia-level research, while the Chicago committee’s work was done behind closed doors. “It’s frustrating that decision-making bodies have completely excluded historians,” Coe says.

Typically, monuments are not erected as the result of community agreement and deliberation. It’s fairly well understood at this point that Confederate monuments were put up not to mark the past, but were placed at courthouses and other prominent spots during particular moments when white supremacists wanted to reassert their authority. “Monuments are not about any kind of democratic vision of who should be honored,” says Masur, the Northwestern historian. “They’re about who has enough money or resources to get a monument put up at a particular moment.”

If monuments are about power, it’s not surprising that the vast preponderance of them depict white males. That’s what’s driving the current re-examination in places like Chicago and San Francisco — identifying not just who deserves memorialization but who hasn’t had it. But if flaws were too long overlooked, it’s possible that the new mindset calling for removal of even partially problematic figures is swinging the pendulum too far toward a different kind of simplification. 

What might be truly inclusive and instructive would not be tearing down all the dead white males but putting up more monuments to reflect the diversity of the nation and the full array of American achievers. There’s currently debate in Washington about removing a statue of Lincoln, but days after it was dedicated in 1876, abolitionist Frederick Douglass suggested there was room in that park for more because “‘no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth.”

Last month, Jilchristina Vest commissioned a mural at her home in Oakland, honoring the women of the Black Panther Party. Too many depictions of Black Americans were negative or commemorated what had been done to them, not what they had accomplished, she said.

“There is definitely a way in which America keeps demanding that we ask permission to take up space,” Vest said. “I wanted these 30-foot tall, brown-skinned women taking up this space and saying I belong here, I have a right to be here.”


Beheaded statues on the Confederate monument in Portsmouth, Va., on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot)  



Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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