Historians have been busy.
My friend and fellow blogger, Megan Kate Nelson, put together a group of links to historians commenting on the confederate monument issue here.
Noted Lincoln author Harold Holzer has a piece in the New York Daily News. He writes, “There’s nothing wrong with removing truly offensive statues that elevate traitors in public space. But let’s audit these memorials with care and context lest we sweep them away with such a broad brush that we whitewash actual history in the same way their proponents have appropriated historical memory. Ironically, the extremists who organized their Charlottesville march around the fake trope of saving the Lee statue — together with Trump, who suggested that the haters had no other agenda than preservation (and moreover had ‘a permit’) — may have done more to propel its removal than a thousand voices sincerely finding it offensive. With some poetic justice, Charlottesville may have the same effect on Confederate memorials as Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage in Charleston so quickly exerted on the inexcusable display of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. In the remote chance there may still be a way to take a breath, dial back the heat, and search for solutions that respect history, memory, art, and understandable human emotion, the following suggestions may offer a path. First, let’s indeed abandon or relocate statues to Confederate icons that sit in public space outside the old Rebel States.” He continues, “At the least, we should move these statues to schools or museums and use them to educate, not celebrate. As for truly offensive monuments like the Memphis equestrian of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest — a slave dealer who likely massacred unarmed blacks during the Civil War and led the KKK after — they belong in the dustheap of history and art alike. Second, in some cases let’s consider context over condemnation. Cannot we surround century-old statues with explanatory texts that place them firmly within the historical periods that inspired them? Most Confederate memorials rose not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. They got installed once white supremacists regained power after Reconstruction, overturned federally mandated rights for African Americans and created a false historical narrative to sanctify the rebellion.” This has been tried on occasion, though, and has failed to produce the desired effect. Holzer says, “Third, what about the idea of ‘counter-memorials’? In Richmond, the lily-white Monument Ave. statues of Lee and other Confederates now lead to a powerful response: a statue of African-American tennis great Arthur Ashe. In Baltimore, the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the shameful Dred Scott decision that rejected citizenship for African Americans, was ‘answered’ by a statue of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the high court Taney once led.” Once again, though, we have the question of who will fund these monuments? Holzer continues, “Fourth, where appropriate let’s respect the intrinsic value of art for art’s sake. Not all Confederate statuary is worthy. Most of the 1,500 surviving monuments are, in fact, terrible. But the Lee equestrian in Richmond is spectacular. Why not move the meritorious ones to other spots: to battlefield sites, cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried, or museums where they can be fully analyzed? Many will look cartoonish close-up, since they were deeply carved to be seen from below. But sacrificing ideal perspective is a small price to pay for preserving good art and using it to illuminate history.” Indeed, most of the monuments were ordered out of mail-order catalogs and it’s no coincidence they bear a striking resemblance to Union monuments with a few strategic differences. To end the article, he writes, “Fifth, let’s firmly counter the false equivalency now dangerously morphing to threaten statues of American Presidents. To be sure, the Virginia-born Founding Fathers were flawed. Jefferson wrote magisterial words to define freedom, but never lived by his own credo that ‘all men are created equal.’ Washington fought heroically for liberty, but enslaved human beings. Still, the American experiment matured beyond the laboratory stage only because such imperfect men formed a more perfect union. To erase their memory would be a catastrophic crime against history, knowledge and progress. Finally, let’s try conducting these crucial explorations without grandstanding, hubris or hypocrisy. It’s worth remembering that President Trump comes by his reverence for historical sculpture rather late in life. In 1980, a few years before I joined the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met asked Trump if we could rescue and exhibit the beautiful friezes at the old Bonwit Teller building — which he was about to raze to make way for Trump Tower. We appraised them at around $200,000. Their preservation would have required only a few days’ delay. Instead Trump labeled the treasures ‘junk’ and ordered them removed and smashed. Now that was a loss to our heritage.” Most of these are reasonable suggestions, though I would submit Mr. Holzer is a little behind the curve.
This story quotes a couple historians on the monuments. Professor Jane Dailey of the University of Chicago says, “Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather, erecting them toward a white supremacist future.” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, “These statues were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy. Why would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?” In the story we find, ” In an interview with NPR, Dailey said it’s impossible to separate symbols of the Confederacy from the values of white supremacy. In comparing Robert E. Lee to Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Tuesday, President Trump doesn’t seem to feel the same. Dailey pointed to an 1861 speech by Alexander Stephens, who would go on to become vice president of the Confederacy. ‘[Our new government’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,’ Stevens said, in Savannah, Ga. ‘That slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’ To build Confederate statues, says Dailey, in public spaces, near government buildings, and especially in front of court houses, was a ‘power play’ meant to intimidate those looking to come to the ‘seat of justice or the seat of the law.’ ‘I think it’s important to understand that one of the meanings of these monuments when they’re put up, is to try to settle the meaning of the war’ Dailey said. ‘But also the shape of the future, by saying that elite Southern whites are in control and are going to build monuments to themselves effectively. And those monuments will endure and whatever is going around them will not.’ ”
CNN Opinion asked a group of historians to contribute their thoughts. Professor Amy Greenberg of Penn State University said, “I think rational people can debate whether removing a statue of a Confederate leader is in the best interests of a community, or of society as a whole. It’s possible to argue that obliterating evidence of ‘bad’ historical events or ‘offensive’ people might in the end be counterproductive, allowing a collective amnesia that the bad events ever happened. But to say that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee is taking away someone’s ‘history’– I’m not even sure what that means. One thing I’m quite sure of is that Robert E. Lee was not ‘exactly the same’ as George Washington. One devoted over 25 years of his life to creating a republic the likes of which history had never known, and for his sacrifice gained the title ‘Father of his Country.’ The other was a traitor. Lee took up arms against the United States, leading a rebellion that was responsible for the deaths of over 600,000 Americans, and was defeated. The fact that Robert E. Lee wasn’t hung as a traitor was thanks to the benevolence of the US government.”
Professor Karen Cox of UNC-Charlotte wrote, “Southerners have a wide range of opinions when it comes to Confederate monuments. Unlike the Jim Crow era when those markers of Southern heritage were celebrated by the entire white community, many contemporary Southerners find themselves at odds with that heritage.” Professor Cox, by the way, received some ugly responses to her New York Times editorial [a link can be found in Megan Kate Nelson’s post linked above] and wrote about it on her blog here. In his contribution, James Grossman said, “The aftermath of the tragedy in Charlottesville has stripped the facade from a landscape of national conflict, but has also provided an opportunity. On the one hand, we see an apparent tolerance for historical ignorance, but on the other, there is a renewed national interest in the subtleties of history and memory. Large portions of the American public — including the media — don’t know the history of the Confederacy, the Civil War, or how many of the Confederate monuments came to exist. So they are debating whether or not to erase a history that they don’t know very well. The deeper and more troubling tolerance for historical ignorance, however, lies not only in the public at large but in public officials as well. Two weeks ago, Jared Kushner told congressional interns in the context of diplomatic work in the Middle East, ‘We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books.’ He continued, “Based on comments on Tuesday and his subsequent tweets, the President clearly doesn’t know the difference between the accomplishments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (deeply flawed as they might have been) as opposed to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who are historically significant only because of their leadership in the attempt to establish what Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens described as a nation whose ‘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.’ The President’s ignorance of history has been on vivid display before: in his homage to Andrew Jackson or reference to abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the present tense, as if he were still alive. This is disappointing but not tragic. What’s tragic is that so many Americans, including political leadership, think it’s acceptable to distort the past and freely spout untruths. What’s also tragic is the refusal of our President to utter one simple sentence: ‘The Confederacy was a bad idea.’ As a historian, I think we should all be able to agree that Alexander Stephens accurately summarized the individual Confederate states’ declarations of secession. We can argue within our communities about the interpretive and policy implications of that simple fact or about the social issues underlying debates over the fate of these monuments. But imagine if all 535 members of Congress and the President of the United States would just say ‘The Confederacy is a bad idea.’ And then leave it to states and communities to debate the implications for public culture and policy.”
Dr. Grossman also appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss confederate monuments and their history and meaning. You can view it here: //www.c-span.org/video/?432763-4/washington-journal-james-grossman-discusses-battle-confederate-monuments
Kimberly Atkins, the guest host, flubbed some historical details, for example claiming Lee had been a US Army general before being a confederate general. He was a colonel in the US Army when he resigned. I’m a bit disappointed Grossman didn’t correct her on that, but he was making a larger point. Grossman also called Nathan Bedford Forrest one of the founders of the KKK. He wasn’t, though he was an early leader of the Klan in its white supremacist terrorism. Altogether, though, it’s a very good segment.
Professor Peniel Joseph of the University of Texas wrote, “The Civil War represented a defining moment in our young nation’s history, an era whose legacy continues to be seen in the pockmarked residual scars that arise over Confederate statues, battle flags and symbols that connect past and present in uncomfortably illuminating ways. Despite the tragic events in Charlottesville and the staggering failure of presidential leadership in its wake, we have reason to be optimistic. History’s most enduring lesson is that change happens from the bottom up, pushing institutions, organizations and yes, even presidents to catch up with social movements demanding justice. Reimagining American democracy in the 21st century requires the personal and political maturity to acknowledge the depth and breadth of racial injustice while recognizing the fact that the current outrage over the President’s tone-deaf handling of the Charlottesville tragedy is reflective of a kind of progress that we should never ignore.”
My friend and blogging colleague Kevin Levin contributes this: “For those of us following the Confederate monument debate, the violence in Charlottesville was a game-changer. The murder of Heather Heyer will have the same impact on the call to remove Confederate monuments as the horrific events in Charleston did two years ago on the display of the battle flag. Baltimore quickly removed four monuments and Lexington, Kentucky, along with other towns and cities, will most certainly follow. Before Charlottesville there was a possibility that cities like Richmond, which has made an effort to add monuments to its commemorative landscape and preserve important historic sites connected to slavery, would be able to steer a course that avoided removal of its Confederate monuments. Mayor Levar Stoney hoped to guide his city to just this conclusion in forming a commission to explore the possibilities of adding context to Monument Avenue. He recently revised this stance and will now consider removal as a possible solution. So what happened? The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville exposed what has always been the fundamental question of whether Robert E. Lee or any other monument represents the collective values of the community. That was certainly the case when the Lee monument was dedicated in 1924, but that was accomplished as a result of legal segregation, which prevented any input from the city’s African-American population. The history infused in Confederate monuments became a tool to justify and maintain white supremacy. Absent in the collective memory represented in these monuments was any recognition that Lee and other Confederates were willing to give their lives to create an independent slaveholding republic built on white supremacy.”
The issue promises to produce even more discussion.