As a result of the recent incidents involving the deaths of three unarmed Black men, George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubery, and Rayshard Brooks, at the hands of white police officers or vigilantes, many Americans have renewed efforts to remove monuments to Confederate soldiers and politicians from public places of honor. In protests over these deaths, some statues and monuments have been toppled or defaced. Debate about what to do with Confederate statues rages once again.
I’ve commented on this topic in other blogs, but want to explain my position in greater detail. To avoid an overly long post, I’m organizing my thoughts into two posts covering some of the arguments and equities on both sides of the debate. Part 1 sets forth an evaluation of the most popular arguments for retaining the statues. Part 2, which will appear tomorrow, discusses reasons for removing them or displaying them in locations other than public places of honor.
In case there is any doubt, my view is many of these monuments and statues should not have been erected and placed in locations of honor in the first place. Many of them are a tacit homage to racism and white supremacy, concepts that should not be celebrated in modern America. Confederate monuments and statues should be removed from all public places where their display constitutes implied or express endorsement of the Confederate cause or serves to inspire racism.
Arguments For Keeping Confederate Statues And Monuments
Arguments for preserving the statues and monuments include:
- Removal would erase history,
- Statues and monuments merely reflect cultural heritage,
- Statues and monuments should be respected as artistic creations, and
- It’s a slippery slope.
This argument seems to be that taking down monuments and statues would somehow erase Southern and Confederate history. That is an interesting talking point but it makes no sense. After Confederate statues are removed, U.S. history will still be taught and will still cover the Civil War. No one is banning books on the Civil War or the Confederacy. Google will still return the same search results on southern history even if statues are removed. Civil War battlefields remain preserved.
Confederate statues and monuments are not as much about preserving history as they are about about creating an inaccurate version of history. Confederate monuments support a romantic notion of the Confederacy not the reality of it. These monuments are part of an attempt to whitewash the image of the antebellum South as an honorable bastion of old-fashioned chivalry. Under that version of history, the Confederacy was a noble cause required to defend states’ rights and a virtuous antebellum South against an aggressive North, which was purportedly responsible for starting the Civil War.
But maintaining slavery was the primary concern of the Confederacy. It was more important than the issue of states’ rights. To maintain slavery, southern states demanded that the federal government override the rights of northern states on the issue of runaway slaves.
Those demands resulted in passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That law mandated that escaped slaves in free states, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states cooperate in locating and capturing suspected slaves. It also stipulated that any person in a free sate who provided food or shelter to a fugitive slave was subject to imprisonment and fine. The 1850 law and a less stringent statute dating from 1793 resulted in many free men being wrongly enslaved. The movie Twelve Years A Slave documents the case of Solomon Northup, a freeborn man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841.
Slavery was necessary to maintain the Southern way of life. Indeed after the Civil War and emancipation, the antebellum South was gone with the wind. Gone but fondly remembered. As the popular song “Dixieland” laments, “old times there are not forgotten.”
Unlike some other forms of this historical practice, Southern slavery was based squarely on an unshakable belief in the superiority of the white race over Africans whether they were slaves or not. The Confederacy and its reliance on slavery was racism and white supremacy personified.
Moreover, to be historically accurate, Confederate generals, politicians and supporters were traitors. They sought to destroy the United States of America and ensure the continuation of slavery. Confederate monuments and statues glorify the institution of slavery and distort the history of the South and the Confederacy.
Some also maintain that Confederate monuments and statues must be respected because they are part of heritage. The Confederacy lasted a mere four years. It makes one wonder why the South chooses to identify with Civil War heritage over everything else.
Cultural heritage is preserved in museums primarily. Museums are excellent places to preserve cultural heritage because objects displayed can be presented with detailed information explaining historical significance and context including alternative points of view.
Removing Confederate monuments from public places will not mean Southern heritage vanishes or is diminished. In high school, I took a two-week tour of Civil War battlefields. The sites of major and some minor battles during the war are thoughtfully preserved with detailed information on strategy and tactics, participating units and their commanders, and troop positions and movements during the fighting. Statues and monuments to Confederate officers and soldiers are entirely appropriate on the fields where they fought and nearby museums.
Some claim Confederate statues and monuments cannot be removed, destroyed or defaced because they are works of art. But some artwork can be inappropriate for public display. And not all art is displayed or kept in the original location. Removing the Confederate monuments and statues to locations on a battlefield or a museum doesn’t destroy them. New works of art can be created and put in those locations to honor America and people we can all look up to.
The contention is that if a statue of someone like Jefferson Davis can be removed, “radicals” won’t stop there. Some raise the prospect of removing statues, monuments and references to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the two most famous slave-owning presidents.
The argument falsely asserts that protecting Washington and Jefferson requires continuing to honor traitors who caused the deaths of more American soldiers than in all other U.S. wars combined.
A “slippery slope” defense is spurious. Any action or rationale if taken to wild extremes could have undesirable results. The issue of statues and monuments to others who have imperfect records must be decided on all of the facts pertaining to each individual.
The current situation presents the narrow issue of the merits of removing from public places of honor some or all statues and monuments of Confederate soldiers, officers, and politicians. Washington, Jefferson and others, although slave owners, are in a completely different ball park. They were leaders in establishing this country not in tearing it apart.
Part 1 Conclusion
Thank you for reading Part 1 and considering my perspective. Part 2 will discuss some of the factors and considerations supporting removing Confederate monuments from public places of honor. That post will be published tomorrow.
I know this issue elicits many different opinions. Whether you agree or disagree in whole or in part, it would be helpful to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment on Part 1,
hold your fire wait until Part 2 comes out tomorrow, or comment one or both parts separately.