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.