The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble

The 20th century produced monuments to a false consensus—can the 21st century create a more representative commemorative sphere?

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

For the past two weeks, the opinion pages have been consumed with the demands of students at Princeton University that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from the university’s school of public and international affairs and one of its residential colleges. The Princeton protests follow several other high-profile revolts against historical icons whose legacies are entangled with the history of white supremacy. Students at Yale are working to have John C. Calhoun’s name stripped from a residential college there; students at the University of Missouri have called for a statue of Thomas Jefferson to be removed from campus. These campus protests follow a well-publicized movement to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This has been a season of iconoclasm.

Both the protesters and their critics have tended to move from one individual case to the next. Protesters have called attention to the sins in thought, word, and deed of one historical figure after another. Skeptics have responded by pointing to those figures’ positive achievements and placing their shortcomings within their historical contexts. Editorial boards have weighed in on whether the individuals in question were or were not racist. And university officials have designed processes to weigh whether these figures’ actions are sufficiently loathsome to merit the removal of their names and images.

But, while both the protesters and their detractors focus on the question of what to do with the legacies of historically prominent figures today, there is a larger reckoning that America needs to have with the style of commemoration embodied in these individual monuments—and the meanings of the American nation bound up in them. These protests may be dealing a final blow to a style of commemoration that thrived for much of the 20th century. Something new will take its place. But what? Discussing individuals and (where warranted) removing names is good—but it is just a start. The crucial next step is to rethink and reinvent the ways the nation commemorates. To do that, it is important to first understand the ideological underpinnings of these enduring monuments, the touchstones of an age when America churned out everything from statues to buildings to new currency at a furious pace.

Call it the Age of Marble: an epoch, at its height in the first half of the 20th century, in which idealized images of politicians served as focal points for a narrative of American national unity and progress. The project of a number of civic elites—public officials above all, but also university trustees, local boosters, civic organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, and more—the Age of Marble produced many of the most iconic mages of American civic culture, among them the Lincoln Memorial (1922), the Jefferson Memorial (1943), and Mount Rushmore (1941). These were the years when Treasury put Andrew Jackson’s likeness on the $20 bill (1928), when Yale named one of its new residential colleges for John C. Calhoun (1932), and when Princeton, staking its position as a training ground of the postwar foreign-policy establishment, expanded its school of public and international affairs as a “lasting memorial” to Woodrow Wilson (1948).

In place of previous generations’ grand narratives—of the frontier, of a distinctive, liberty-loving republican people—Americans now focused their attention on great leaders, the conduits who channeled timeless American virtues into national progress, greatness, and power. Great men, the sociologist Barry Schwartz notes, served as “subjects of reverence” and symbols of unity, democratic progress, fair dealing, and justice. (Not coincidentally, the heyday of the Age of Marble was also the peak of the “presidential synthesis” of U.S. history—Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s landmark The Age of Jackson was published in 1945, his Age of Roosevelt trilogy between 1958 and 1960.) The Age of Marble was not especially interested in the actual personalities of these leaders, or the details of the history they helped make. When W.E.B. Du Bois took the occasion of the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication to note, rightly, that Lincoln’s greatness inhered in being “big enough to be inconsistent,” he was inundated with indignant letters. And though it chose politicians as its focal points, the Age of Marble was not especially interested in contentious, democratic politics. Its key concerns lay elsewhere: in asserting shared values at a moment when the United States was torn by the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the long-running battle between capital and labor, and competing visions of the role of government and America’s place in the world.

This style of commemoration was sustained by a kind of national comity-through-exclusion, a vision of the nation that could only exist because northern and western Americans had acquiesced in the dismantling of the legacy of Reconstruction. It is not a coincidence that the Age of Marble coincided with that period of American history—from Plessy v. Ferguson and the defeat of the Republican Party’s last attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment in the 1890s to World War II—in which “the race question” was taken off the table in national politics in the name of intersectional reconciliation. As a consequence, an exclusionary vision of the nation was written into the national meanings encoded in the era’s iconography. Witness President Warren G. Harding—Republican from Ohio!—at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial: “The supreme chapter in history is not emancipation ... Emancipation was a means to the great end—maintained union and nationality.” This is indicative of the kind of historical and national erasures the Age of Marble required: The product of a white power structure, the Lincoln Memorial began its life as an ode to North-South reconciliation, not a testament to a new birth of freedom.

To understand the commemorative style of the Age of Marble is to appreciate where its weak points are. Built on the idea of fixed and timeless national values, it assumed moral development would be progressive rather than revolutionary; consequently, it has not been flexible enough to accommodate moral and ethical development on the scale of the anti-racism and gender revolutions. Its reliance on racial exclusion was not only an evil in itself; it was also a structural flaw. Built on the artificial consensus made possible by white supremacy, this ideology simply could not survive in a more diverse, pluralistic world. And its “great man” theory of national development squared poorly with how politics actually worked—as historians and social movements alike would soon demonstrate.

Just as the age itself was the product of the conjuncture of several historical developments, so has been its unmaking. Stemming from the desegregation of the academy, the public sphere, and the historical imagination itself, Americans have taken a newly critical, and newly inclusive, approach to U.S. history. They have become more aware of the symbolic, the linguistic, and the personal as domains of power. The declining esteem for governing officials that first registered in public-opinion polls in the second half of the 1960s has lent popular traction to historians’ dismantling of “presidential synthesis” in particular and of a history driven by “great men” more generally. Cultural and spatial sorting by party, group, and ideology have led to issues of national identity and the commemorative practices associated with them being fought out, increasingly, in two separate national communities.

The beginning of the end of the Age of Marble came with the black freedom struggle’s rise to national prominence in the 1960s. Black activists and intellectuals hit this commemorative style where it was weakest, forcing Americans to grapple with the cultural politics of racial exclusion and endowing them with a better sense of the role of radicals, social movements, and moral leadership in U.S. history and life. Lincoln’s prestige had been in decline in African American intellectual circles since the 1930s (while Frederick Douglass’s prestige and that of the Radical Republicans was on the rise); in the 1960s, this line of critique burst into public view as a new generation of intellectuals revisited the fact that Lincoln was, as Douglass had once put it, preeminently the white man’s president. As issues of racial and gender inequality and colonialism gained space in public conversations, reassessments of practically every “great” American political figure followed. These currents changed the meanings of some older icons: The Lincoln Memorial has not looked the same since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And they have led to the creation of more inclusive statues and monuments, such as the Memorial to Japanese Patriotism in World War II and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, among others. But only now have these developments produced a full-on attack on the iconography of the Age of Marble.

More recently, the Age of Marble has come under attack on another, less-discussed front. Historical commemoration is a kind of de-commodification: Commemoration places a historical figure’s name or image in a place of value, thereby forgoing potential transactions involving that space. The commercialization that has eroded so much of the mid-20th-century public sphere—from city parks to public broadcasting—has not left historical commemoration untouched. Princeton affixed Woodrow Wilson’s name to a residential college in 1968 (primarily in recognition of his role in Princeton’s development, though the controversy today involves his public record). But its two most recently built colleges are named for donors: the publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes and a business executive, Meg Whitman. Quietly, the commemorative sphere has been eroded by the practice of naming buildings, not for figures of community esteem, but for the people who pay for them.

The present iconoclasm offers American communities and the nation itself an opportunity to reimagine how they express values—and how they approach history in light of those values. To this end, an appreciation of the history of commemoration serves up some warnings. First, it warns against a simple inversion of the “great man” trope—the turning of heroes into anti-heroes. The present spirit of iconoclasm risks treating the pathologies of American life as the products of the decisions and moral character of individuals. It is perfectly true, as The New York Times editorial board noted, that Woodrow Wilson was an “unapologetic racist.” But a framework that individualizes processes and structures in which nearly all white Americans of the time were implicated risks distracting attention from the actual history of white supremacy in America. If the antihero becomes a scapegoat, the next generation is left with no better an understanding of how agency and structure, history and leadership, actually relate to each other.

Just as the construction of antiheroes risks reproducing the Age of Marble’s fetish for the heroic individual, conversely, merely adding a more diverse set of figures to the statuary set—though distinctly preferable to the status quo—won’t do the entire job. Commemorative sites don’t need new personalities alone but new principles, new plans, new ways of thinking about how to bridge the chasm between history, which is inherently complex, and community values, which require a consensus and clarity that neither history nor politics can supply. This is a moment in which marginalized voices are demanding to be part of the national narrative. This is a sign of national strength, not fracture. It represents a real opportunity to begin a substantive dialogue, not only about what is wrong with current historical representations but how to reimagine historical commemoration for the future.

History also warns that the primary challenger to the Age of Marble, today, may be the destruction of commemoration through commodification. A more inclusive commemorative sphere will not follow naturally from the destruction of old national icons; it will have to be made through conscious effort. These will be difficult discussions, and it will be tempting to turn toward philanthropy as a way out—to see the wealth accumulated through capitalism as a morally and ethically neutral or objective alternative in a context of cultural dissensus. Yet if Woodrow Wilson College simply becomes Bloomberg College, Princeton will have lost an opportunity to talk about what kind of college it wishes to be. America writ large confronts the same risk. And so, if university communities and the public generally agree that a donor class of buildings is not the answer, then the present critiques of individual racism will have to broaden into a discussion of what these communities do value.

What will this moment in history be the age of? Americans better decide—before Trump or Bloomberg decides for them.