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.