Statues Have Their Own Histories
We need to know who put up a statute, and why, before deciding its fate
In August, 2017, white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee whose removal was being sought by activists and officials. Counter-protests formed. Among other violent incidents, a white nationalist ran his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one. President Donald Trump then held a press conference and sprayed gasoline on the fire with various comments, most notoriously his insistence that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
That much is well-remembered. But another of Trump’s comments was greeted with almost as much incredulity. The statue should stay, Trump said. Sure, Lee supported slavery. But George Washington owned slaves. As did Thomas Jefferson. “So will George Washington now lose his status? … Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”
This is the sort of crude slippery slope argument which those of modest cognitive capacity make when they try to defend the indefensible. Lots of people said so. But some thoughtful voices went further in explaining the fallacy of Trump’s reasoning. Here is an interview with Jamelle Bouie, who is now a New York Times columnist. (As regulars know, I’m a huge fan of Bouie’s use of history to illuminate current events. Every newspaper and magazine should have someone on that beat.)
Jefferson was a slaveholder. Washington was a slaveholder. But the reason we memorialize them is not because of their slaveholding. We memorialize them because one wrote the Declaration of Independence, and one led the Continental Armies and basically formed the model for the presidency. And while their public memories should include the fact that they owned slaves – I think it should be pretty central to how we remember them – in terms of memorializing there is material for creating a broad narrative that everyone can buy into. That was basically the whole project of the musical Hamilton.
Lee is only famous because he led Confederate armies. If secession had never happened and the Confederacy had never come into existence, Lee would have lived his life and died as an obscure member of the United States military. You can’t untangle him from the Confederacy. And if you look at even a cursory history of the memorialization of the Confederacy, it all pops up in the 1890s and 1900s and 1910s, as Jim Crow was being codified. These statues were explicitly raised as symbols of Jim Crow and white supremacy.
So Trump’s comparison there is dumb. It doesn’t really even make any sense. And the notion that there’s some slippery slope is dumb.
Davis, Lee, and other Confederates are prominent figures solely because of their service to the Confederacy, whose aim was to preserve chattel slavery by breaking up the United States. When they were honoured, they were honoured for that. Washington, Jefferson, and the other Founding Fathers, by contrast, are honoured for their roles in creating the United States. They are honoured despite their connection to slavery, not because of it.
What all this points to is the importance of the history behind a statue or plaque or other memorial. Who put it up? When? And most importantly, why? What was their motivation? What did they want this honour to say?
Bouie was exactly right about most Confederate monuments. They were erected by powerful men to say emphatically and publicly -- to use the old language -- “the white man rules here.” There was even a second wave of these memorials erected in the 1950s and 1960s in defiance of integration and the civil rights movement.
In judging memorials – which should be left where they are, and which are so vile to us today that they must go – history is essential. Not only the history of the person or event depicted. The history of the memorial itself.
Picture a statue. It is a simple, life-size, unglamorous depiction of an ordinary Confederate soldier. It stands on a plain, modest pedestal inscribed “we remember the dead.” Here is one possible history for that statue: It was erected in 1870 and was paid for by mothers of dead soldiers. Newspapers record that on the day it was commemorated, mothers spoke of their pain at losing sons and the only political statement was a plea for peace.
Here is another possible history of the same statue: It was erected in 1957 and placed near the local high school because, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, school districts were being pressed to integrate.
Physically, it’s the same statue in every way. And yet anyone can see that the two different histories change the moral calculus dramatically: The second history makes the statue far more offensive, and the case for removal much stronger. This is not to say the first history would necessarily make the statue acceptable, please note. I certainly think a reasonable person living in a town in Georgia or Alabama could still object to it and want it removed. But odiousness is a matter of degree. And the second history makes the statue far worse.
By coincidence, the best illustration of the importance of the history of honours comes from the controversy that first kicked off the reappraisal of memorials.
At the University of Texas, there was a dorm named “Simkins Hall” and a nearby “Simkins Park.” The dorm was built in the 1950s and was named in honour of William Stewart Simkins, a professor who taught at the University of Texas law school in Austin between 1899 and 1929. The park was named in honour of Eldred J. Simkins, William’s brother and a former member of the Board of Regents.
Sounds uncontroversial enough. And it was for decades.
But in 2010, a law professor named Tom Russell published a paper in which he showed that the Simkins brothers had been active in the original Ku Klux Klan following the Civil War. This was widely known at the time the Simkins names were honoured. In fact, Russell argued, it was the reason why they were chosen for the honour. At a time when the university faced growing pressure to admit black students, honouring the Simkins brothers was a way of subtly communicating that black students were not welcome. But as the decades rolled by, all this history was forgotten.
Needless to say, the dorm and park got new names.
The reappraisal of public honours that began in the United States with the likes of Robert E. Lee and the Simkins brothers went global years ago. But as it spread, it lost something essential.
In debates about statues and other forms of memorial, the histories behind the memorials are almost never considered. Who decided to put up the statue? Who named the street or the bridge? Why? What were they honouring? What was the public statement they were making? These basic questions are routinely ignored. All that matters is that the person in question said or did something offensive to us today.
I know why protestors toppled statues in various places in Canada — statues honouring Ryerson, Macdonald, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth. I’ve never seen a word about what people were thinking when they put them up.
In fact, I suspect that people sometimes conflate the feelings of those who are offended today with the intentions of those who put up the memorial.
Consider Tobias Rustat. He was born in 1608, fought in the English Civil War, invested in many things and got rich. He gave bags of money to the poor, widows, orphans, and the like. And he gave an enormous sum to his father’s old school, Jesus College. The College honoured Rustat with a Rustat Feast, Rustat scholarships, and Rustat conferences. And there is a large plaque embedded in the wall of the college’s chapel.
If you’re thinking there is a slavery connection here, you’re right. But not in the way you think. As historian Dominic Sandbrook noted, “not a penny of the Cambridge money had anything to do with slavery.” But after Rustat gave that money to Cambridge, he made relatively small investments in the Royal Africa Company, which was heavily involved in slavery. More than three centuries later, after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests, that was too much for the College. It removed his name from all his honours, and sought legal permission to chisel the plaque off the chapel wall.
Some people objected. Others objected to the objections. The Archbishop of Canterbury asked, “why is it such agony to remove a memorial to slavery?”
See what the good bishop is doing? He is offended by Rustat’s involvement in slavery so he treats a plaque honouring Rustat’s generosity as a plaque honouring slavery. Which is, as a matter of history, nonsense. Imagine looking at the Washington Monument and declaring it a towering pile of praise for slavery that must be torn down immediately. That’s how silly the Archbishop’s view is.
As I suggested earlier, I am not saying that the motivation behind an honour necessarily settles any debate. A statue honouring Adolf Hitler for his contributions to the development of the autobahn may be less offensive than a statue honouring Adolf Hitler for his other policies. And yet it would still be one statue too many.
But if we are to thoughtfully deal with issues of memory in the public space, and not engage in the sort of crude moralism and erasure Donald Trump claimed must follow if Robert E. Lee went the way of the Confederacy, learning the histories of memorials, and giving them due regard, is essential.
We must ask why people put up a statue before we decide to tear it down.
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