A Profoundly Unserious Way of Dealing With the Past

As statues topple across the country, Americans need to distinguish between the problematic or objectionable and the irredeemably wrong.

An illustration of a statue with a red line.
Getty / The Atlantic

There is, near a state capitol, statuary of a dominant white man on horseback, surrounded by African Americans. He is clearly in charge, and they are held together by an externally imposed discipline of a particularly tough kind. A white woman hovers over all. Dedicated in 1897, it is about as racialized a piece of bronze as the era of the Lost Cause could produce. Should it be taken down?

Of course not. The statuary in question is the Robert Gould Shaw memorial, opposite the statehouse in Boston, which commemorates Colonel Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, only the second black regiment raised in the North. Shaw famously led the 54th in the desperate but failed assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863, where it sustained 40 percent casualties. The victorious rebels threw Shaw’s body into a pit with his fallen soldiers. Shaw’s family later refused to let him be exhumed for separate burial, preferring that his bones be forever mingled with theirs.

However, at the end of May 2020, the memorial was vandalized with some of the slogans of this moment.

Statues are toppling—even that of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York; even that of Ulysses S. Grant, the general most responsible for the crushing of the Confederacy. In Britain, the statue of Winston Churchill outside the Houses of Parliament has been defaced by graffiti. As the daughter of a friend sourly remarked, “They seem not to have heard about the other guy.”

Yet surely some statues, some memorials, some place names and portraits should come down. As David Petraeus has pointed out in The Atlantic, it has long been absurd to have American military installations named for Confederate generals; and one cannot defend keeping a statue of Jefferson Davis or Alexander Stephens in a public building other than a museum. So where should we draw the line?

A good place to begin is by asking whether the evil a man or woman did is the most important fact of his or her life. With regard to the Confederate generals, that is unquestionably the case. Robert E. Lee would have been a footnote in the history books had he not foresworn his allegiance to the Constitution and done his formidable best not only to rend the Union asunder, but to defend the system of chattel slavery. As Lincoln once wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” The sheer, murderous wickedness of the Confederate cause, long lost in mythologizing and willful ignorance, is unambiguous.

But of other radically flawed individuals, a different judgment should be made. John F. Kennedy was a sexual predator, as we now know. We should not, however, take his name off the Kennedy Center, and we should not fail to be moved by the clarion call of his inaugural address. Thomas Jefferson was not merely a slaveholder, but a particularly callous one. He was willing to inflict suffering, preying on vulnerable enslaved women and breaking up families. But he also gave America the Declaration of Independence and its principles, which transcend the deeply flawed mortal who wrote them down. We can similarly recognize and wrestle with the flaws—some of them considerable—of the likes of Roosevelt, Grant, and Churchill without losing sight of their accomplishments.

And there are difficult judgments to be made. What of Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans, a democrat rebelling against the rule of established, moneyed elites—but also the political leader principally responsible for the genocidal Trail of Tears?

There are two other principles here. One is that there is one kind of conversation when a person is about to be memorialized; quite another when the monument already exists and its obliteration is intended to remove painful memories of a past that was real. For that reason, there is a higher bar for the removal of Confederate statues than for putting new ones up—yet even so, that higher bar is easily met. But if it’s perfectly reasonable to say that we should not be naming something new after Woodrow Wilson, a bigot throughout his career, whether we should strip his name off a school and a research center that already exist is much less clear.

The other principle is that the decision needs to be made carefully, and with thought, discussion, and justification; dissenting views must be treated with respect, no matter where the outcome lies. The model here is Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech of May 19, 2017, explaining his decision to remove Confederate statuary from New Orleans. The thoughtfulness and consideration he showed in no way diminished the force of his remarks, unflinching in what he said not only about slavery but about the lynchings and brutality of the years after 1865. Nor did his candor diminish the high-minded, optimistic patriotism of his rhetoric and his celebration of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s second inaugural, two of the sacred texts of America’s civic religion.

Americans are living, as they so often have, through a moment fraught with violence and hope, in which they see both their aspirations and their fears in the news and in their hearts. One of those fears is of having to confront the complex history of their country and of their heroes. In that respect, some of the decisions of the moment are about not confronting difficulty but wishing it away, which is a malady of the spirit. It is much harder, braver, and better to wrestle with the conundrum of Jefferson’s anguished declaration that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever” than to remove him from sight in a spasm of preening righteousness.

The issue here is not merely physical assaults on statues, but a failure to distinguish between the problematic or objectionable and the irredeemably wrong, an attempt either to airbrush into anodyne gauziness the history represented by our monuments and named buildings, or to distort it into a long tale of oppression unrelieved by decency or even human complexity. Our current conversation is not taking seriously the problem of context, of how to judge the failures of previous generations, and it reflects a curious assumption that we may not seem equally retrograde and morally obtuse to future generations. This is, in short, a profoundly unserious way of dealing with the past.

Moral judgment can coexist with humility and perspective. In his remarks, Landrieu, a Democrat, approvingly quoted George W. Bush, a Republican, at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.” That sounds strangely out of mode just now. But its truth illuminates a path forward for an agonized country.