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The Difference Between History and Monuments

Updated on August 16, 2017

It's the Meaning of the Memorials that Matters

This blog is a response to an opinion piece from the "Dallas Morning News." (See the link above.) In it, the author argues that if we are going to take down statues of white supremacists like Robert E. Lee, then we should be consistent and also take down memorials to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did, after all, make public statements at times that were downright racist. And Robert E. Lee, who is being depicted these days as a racist bad guy, expressed personal doubts about both the institution of slavery and the act of secession. Since the people of the past were as much of a mixed bag as those today, we go down a slippery slope when we start tearing down monuments to famous people.

I have never addressed the issue of statues and memorials before. This is largely from lack of interest. This whole idea of erecting monuments has always seemed like a strange human pastime, and as a student of history, I am well aware of the degree to which the reality of people and events differs from the myths and legends. Memorials, by their nature, both reflect and reinforce a human tendency to mythologize the past, and in many cases, they can become downright idolatrous. Like with flags, people sometimes care more about the objects than about what those objects supposedly represent.

But this article caught my attention both because it addresses the issue of how we turn famous people into simplistic caricatures and because it raised for me the simple question of why we erect monuments at all. Although statues almost always glorify the person being memorialized, most of us on some level recognize that these were not perfect people. If we humans decided to only build statues of perfect people, then we would never build statues at all. The statues are not really about the famous person anyway. They say more about the people erecting the statues, about the values and ideals they wished to commemorate by building the things.

When the Lincoln Memorial was built, people were not commemorating Abraham Lincoln the "white supremacist." Instead, they were trying to remember Lincoln at his best, as the man who held together the Union and eventually acted to free the slaves. It is a celebration of our survival as a country and of an important step taken toward living up to our national creed. The Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, by the same token, are not celebrating a couple of famous Southern slave owners. Instead, we are remembering the role they played in getting our nation started (in some ways) on the right path.

Statues of Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, are not commemorating his misgivings about slavery or Southern secession. Instead, he is remembered for the role he played in fighting for his state's independence, an effort that began due to the (mistaken) belief that Republicans like Lincoln intended to destroy the Southern way of life. And you are kidding yourself if you do not acknowledge that slavery was an integral part of that way of life that they were defending. Whatever Lee or Lincoln may have felt, said, or wrote at various times in their lives, Lee is most remembered for acting in defense of white supremacy and Lincoln for taking an important action against it.

When monuments to important Confederate figures were erected in the late 19th and (most often in the) early 20th centuries, Southerners were not merely remembering their heritage. They were also using these powerful symbols to assert proudly the Jim Crow system of white superiority that existed in their time. And since the motivations of the monument builders are ultimately more important than the person or event being memorialized, those statues should have come down when the "white" and "colored" signs came down. After a revolution has taken place, it is customary to remove symbols of the old regime. The fact that the statues have stuck around for decades after the Civil Rights Movement indicates that some Southerners would not give up their "way of life" so easily. (And the fact that modern day white supremacists would use the tearing down of a Robert E. Lee statue to rally their supporters indicates the ongoing power and meaning of these Confederate symbols.)

Does this mean that the South should have certain parts of its history wiped away? Of course it shouldn't. The entire history of the South must be preserved in history books, on Civil War battlefields, and in museums. Rather than destroying monuments, these statues should be moved to museums and become a part of the story of how the people of the past have remembered (and used) historical figures and events. The question is not whether we should acknowledge the past. The question is whether certain parts of the past should be celebrated and honored. We must always strive to learn from the past, a past that must be thoroughly scrutinized. But there are many things in our history that do not deserve a monument.

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