Of Historical Statues and Monuments

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To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.

W.J. Astore

Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.

Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.

For me, statues and monuments are a stimulus for reflection as well as education. Who was that guy on a horse? Why is he being honored? And what does that decision tell us about who we were and are as a people?

As a people, we choose certain historical figures as worthy of being sculpted in stone or cast in bronze. We choose our heroes, so to speak, our paragons, our worthies. And our choices are just that — choices. They reflect certain values, priorities, motives, feelings. And since our values, our motives, our sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, change over time, so too can our statues and memorials change, if that is the will of the people in a democracy that enshrines freedom of choice.

If the peoples of various states choose to remove certain statues, so be it. Other statues might take their place; other worthies might be selected as more in keeping with the times and our values as we conceive them today as a people.

What we choose to memorialize as a people says much about ourselves. Many statues and memorials fall under the category of “man on horseback.” Certainly, military figures like Lee and Jackson were considered great men of their times, at least in a Confederate context. They also, sadly, became potent symbols of racism in the Jim Crow South, physical symbols of the myth of the Lost Cause, intimidating and demoralizing figures to Black communities struggling against violence and prejudice.

Americans are an intemperate lot, driven by extremes, constantly fighting to reconfigure ourselves through our interpretation and re-interpretation of history. All this is proof to William Faulkner’s famous saying that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

As a historian, I find it deeply sad as well as ironic that, at a time when education in history is withering in the United States, the importance of history has arguably never been greater. We should use statues as a stimulus for learning, but instead they’re more often appropriated as a driver for divisiveness.

If nothing else, today’s debates about statues should remind us yet again of the importance of history and a proper understanding of it. History is inherently disputatious. Controversial. Challenging. Exciting. If we can tap the heat generated by the latest controversies and warm students to a study of history in all its richness, perhaps some good can come from the ongoing controversy.

What kind of statues and memorials are the “right” ones for America? It’s a vexing question, is it not? It’s also a question with powerful implications. I come back to George Orwell’s comment (slightly paraphrased): He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Our understanding of the past — our selective celebration of it — helps to define what is possible in the future. If you celebrate generals on horseback — military men of the Confederacy — you make a choice that helps to shape what is seen as right and proper in the present moment, and what will be right and proper in the future.

For a better future, I’d like to see fewer statues to military men and sports heroes and the like, and more to visionaries who sought a better way for us as a people. I recall a small monument I saw to Elihu Burritt in Massachusetts. No one is talking about him or his legacy today. He’s an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries, Lee and Jackson. Known as the “Learned Blacksmith,” he was a committed pacifist and abolitionist who worked to educate the less fortunate in society.

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Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author’s photo)

If we are to build prominent statues and monuments, would it not be better to build them to people like Elihu Burritt, people who worked for justice and equality, people who fought against war and slavery and for peace and freedom?

7 thoughts on “Of Historical Statues and Monuments

  1. I certainly agree that we need more monuments to scientists, writers and visionaries. I used to teach in Lawrence, Ma and within a block of the school was a fountain in memory of Robert Frost and a staircase in memory of Ernest Lawrence Thayer (the author of Casey at the Bat.) These are both discreet monuments and you had to be a nerdy sort of person to even know they were there. Equestrian statues have a different sort of presence.

    This last year was my first teaching history and I have to admit I waded into this controversy with both feet. I showed my students Mitch Landriue’s address regarding the removal of Confederate statues
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0jQTHis3f4 after we had studied the Civil War and visited Gettysburg. It led to one of the best discussion we had all year and I hope it was memorable to my students.

    One thing I encouraged my students to do as they traveled around northern New England this summer was to pay attention to the Civil War monuments in every small town. The one in my town for instance, has three hundred names inscribed on it. (I can’t imagine that the population of the whole area was more than 5000 in the 19th century.) I wanted them to understand the impact of the war even in the remote northern farming towns. I visited Alstead, NH, (a truly tiny place) and their green, like most others, had a statue of a Union soldier. These are ubiquitous and quite humble, memorializing the sacrifices of ordinary people. I really don’t know the South, but my impression is that these sorts of statues are less common. Is this true?

    Statues erected for the explicit purpose of reinforcing white supremacy need to go, as Mitch Landriue argues very persuasively. More public art should remember the non-military contributions of diverse groups. I can’t help but feel that all of this is a failure of my own profession. How can we have taught history so badly for so long?

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  2. Having known Quakers in the Richmond Indiana area when I was younger, and admired the peaceful lives they led, your post hit home in many ways. Thank you for the sanity you inject in my life. I continue to share your views with others.

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  3. Statues and/or Monuments can convey context to a specific place. A statue of Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg would at least IMHO be appropriate or a monument to a unit. The message we were here and something important happened that you should remember.

    Beyond that I have difficulty with Confederate Monuments and Statues. Alexander Stephens, the Confederate VP had this to say in his Corner Stone Speech, of March 21, 1861, Savannah, Georgia:

    “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science”.

    The Statues and Monuments represent the not only the person but also the “Cause” that was fought for. We should not forget the words of Alexander Stephens concerning slavery in assessing the Confederacy. History is important but it should not be the Gone with the Wind white wash.

    Just as an aside I struggle with the idea of why so many US Army forts and bases are named after Confederate Generals, etc. : Camp Beauregard, Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Fort Gordon, Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Hood, Fort Lee, Fort Pickett, Fort Polk, and Fort Rucker. http://www.businessinsider.com/these-are-the-10-us-military-bases-still-named-after-confederates-2017-8

    Let us ponder the thoughts a Black Soldier may have concerning why those Confederates who fought against the United States and defended the institution of slavery are honored. What is the message???

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    1. Yes. For federal institutions to be named for men who were secessionists is odd indeed. I have to admit I never gave it much thought, perhaps because I was never assigned to those bases.

      While I understand Southern military tradition and pride– and how some people wish to honor men like Lee and Jackson for their skill and prowess as generals — the sad truth is that many of these monuments were built to send messages consistent either with Jim Crow/racist agendas or with anti-government sentiments, or both.

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  4. IMHO, removing the statutes and monument will not really resolve the major issue facing the country… RACISM… history can not ( and should not ) be erased by such actions. Education about the past that will change the mindset of White privilege and supremacy is the only way to deal with the situation. Building monuments to individuals who have contributed to the society in a positive way will honour that person. Sadly, it will not solve the problem of ignorance about the past and Racism as it exists in the society.

    ps For me, It was fascinating to see the bust of Chief Seattle in the Pioneer Square!

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  5. The story of the road to the Civil War is a study in how fanaticism develops, expanding until it claims priority for itself at the highest level and turns logic upside down. From the founding of the United States when slavery was distasteful to many but accepted, to the years just before war broke out, the peculiar institution was pushed to the point where spokesmen for the south were claiming all kinds of beneficial things for it, including the absurdity that Africans were better off as slaves in America than as Africans in Africa; that slavery, far from being odious, was a point of pride for the slave owners who were philanthropic for giving food and shelter to so many in return for a days work. Southerners forced slavery right into the faces of northerners with the Fugitive Slave Law that required slaves who escaped north to be returned to the south by people who it was known disliked slavery. There was much more but the upshot was “we will do as we wish, we will flaunt it, and you will do nothing to stop us”.

    The sad fact is that this was exactly the same view as Reconstruction collapsed and the bitter South re-instituted old practices right out in the open knowing the north had no will to remain an occupier to insure the rights of former slaves. Someone had to pay for the humiliation of military defeat and who better than the ex-slaves? The erection of the Confederate statues occurred not as the war had just ended but much later, as a new version of the peculiar institution was entrenched accompanied by a defiant statement through monuments that the pride was as strong as ever. Three words could sum it up – “sorry? Hell no!”

    I bring this issue of fanaticism up because I am very strongly reminded of this history when I see what is happening with guns in America. We are now to the point where those who do not want the citizenry armed are forced to admit armed citizens into every public place one can imagine under the claim that this is making us all safer. We should all be carrying concealed weapons for protection from each other. The logic is again upside-down. There is the same aggressive, fanatical attitude of “you may not like it but we are going to put our preference in your face”

    Slavery and guns…two issues that produced/produce a fanaticism that will accept no compromise. Fanaticism broke the country once. What is going to happen this time around?

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