Historical Monuments

By Vincent J. Truglia

The debate over Confederate statues is worth having. Debate requires free speech, with both sides hearing things about which they may disapprove. The Charlottesville demonstrations reminded me of Weimar Germany. We always hear about Nazi-era violence, but there was more than violence enough to go around in 1920s-1930s Germany. We may forget that prior to the Nazi accession to power, the Communists were equally violent. Until 1933, the worst clashes were between Nazis and Communists, with the average German eventually becoming so tired of the political violence, that anyone who could end it was welcome to come to power.

Demonstrators displaying weapons in Charlottesville or anywhere else were/are guilty of betraying free speech. All those committing acts of violence should be condemned and prosecuted. The so-called antifa crowd, which appear largely responsible for most anti-free speech violence, are the modern version of the German Communists of the 20s. They want violence to rise so that only their version of public discourse will be allowed. It didn’t end well for the Communists, nor for Germans overall.

The reason a debate is required regarding Confederate statues is that these men fought for the destruction of the Union. It always seemed odd to me that we have statues built to commemorate enemies of the Republic. I am sure it is not just odd, but painful for African-Americans to see these statues displayed. As usual, most people on both sides of a debate are often not familiar with history.

What Robert E. Lee Would Do?

The history regarding the reason for erecting these monuments varies from age to age. General Robert E. Lee, in a speech given in Gettysburg in 1867, said that all monuments which referred to past civil strife should be “obliterated.” So surprisingly, those calling for removing Confederate monuments would have General Lee’s complete approval.

In the decades after the Civil War almost all monuments referring to the Confederacy referred almost exclusively to those who died, and were usually commissioned by their direct ancestors. The big change occurs at the beginning of the 20th century, as Jim Crow laws had become ubiquitous. Instead of commemorating the war dead, Civil War leaders began to be honored. Then for much of the mid-20th century, not many new Civil War monuments were built. Then suddenly, starting in the 1960s, more Confederate statues appeared. This was an obvious attempt by segregationists to try to thwart the civil rights movement.

Given what Robert E. Lee recommended, and the history of civil war monuments, I believe all such monuments, except for those actually commemorating war dead, should be removed.

 

Once we move beyond Confederate statues, then although I am willing to discuss any public display, I am totally against removing historical monuments in the US, which are viewed by some as hurtful. History can’t be sanitized by simply forgetting what happened. The world today cannot be sanitized in a way that no one is devoid of hurtful experiences.

Should Slave Ownership Preclude Public Displays of Honor?

I believe, without any doubt, that every human being is imperfect. We should weigh the accomplishments of individuals against their imperfections when choosing which people to honor. Every American Revolutionary leader who lived in the South was almost inevitably a slave owner. Some of them remained conflicted about the maintenance of slavery. However, some of these same men also laid the groundwork for establishing the principle of individual rights, without which we would never have reached a level of civil rights of the type that we have today. If they had openly opposed the existing slave system, they would never have become leaders in the South. We would not have the incredible words of the Declaration of Independence. Without the leading Virginians, the colonies would never have separated from Great Britain. We would be living in a very different world today.

Slave ownership also existed in most Northern states as well, including New York and New Jersey. In the county where I live in central New Jersey, at the time of the Revolution, about one-fourth of the population was made up of slaves. Slavery was an integral part of the colonial and post-Revolutionary War period. If slave ownership means no memorials of any kind, then almost no historical memorials would be allowed for some of the most important Founding Fathers.

The problem gets even more complicated when we are dealing with American leaders who were not slave owners themselves, but who benefitted from slavery. Also, most elite American universities dating from the slave period owe a lot of their early funding to activities and people associated with the slave trade.

Should Racist Views by Historical Figures Preclude Public Displays of Honor?

If we broaden our discussion to include men who were racist, we again need to remove more memorials, because most American historical figures before World War II were racist and/or anti-Semitic. I always use the word men because women were rarely commemorated in the past. The list of likely racists is long. Abraham Lincoln, an icon of civil rights, was quite racist in his personal beliefs. He defined equality between the races quite differently than we might suppose. He did not see blacks and whites as socially equal. He never defined the Civil War as a war against slavery.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves, but only those who lived in then still Confederate-occupied states. The reason for the proclamation was not related to Lincoln’s personal views on the matter of race per se, but at the time it was done to keep escaped slaves fighting in the Union Army, and to attract more to escape and come North to fight. By the time of the proclamation, African-Americans in the military exceeded 200,000.

There is correspondence which indicates that Lincoln wanted to issue that order earlier, but was advised not to do so until the Union had at least won some important battles. The reason for the delay was that until the Union had won some major battles, a proclamation freeing slaves in the South would have been interpreted by the general public as an act of desperation by the North.

The Thirteenth Amendment

In the end, Lincoln fought to pass the 13th Amendment because he did not know what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of now armed fugitive slaves who had fought for the North. Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution required that all fugitive slaves would have to be returned to their owners, even if across state lines.  Without the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment the Civil War would likely have been soon followed by an armed insurrection by former slaves who were now trained and equipped by the Union army. If anything, Lincoln was a pragmatist.

Lincoln was clearly a racist in his fundamental beliefs, as we would define racism today, but does he deserve a monument because he tried to keep freed slaves from rebelling? I would argue that the eventual fruits of Lincoln’s labor exceeded his far from ideal personal beliefs.

Although I can’t prove for sure that all late-19th century presidents were racist, I find it hard to believe that, given the general views held at the time, that they were not racist.

Woodrow Wilson

One post-Civil War president was a well-known racist. Woodrow Wilson segregated the Federal Government, including the armed forces. Prior to that there had been no formal Federal segregation rules in place. Segregating the Federal government appeared perfectly normal at the time, since beginning in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws had been passed in Southern states. However, Wilson is also the man who saved Western political ideals (even if we know they weren’t carried out perfectly) from authoritarian German and Hapsburg governance. He was the force behind the League of Nations, even if he couldn’t convince the US Senate for the US to join. Despite its failures, the League led to the creation of the UN after World War II.

The issue becomes, do we remove Wilson from our collective memory for his racist ideas, which were commonly held at the time, or do we remember him for his work in fostering human rights for the vast majority of Americans and Europeans? I come down favoring commemorating Wilson, but always with the knowledge that he was far from perfect.

FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt, often beloved by African-Americans, is faulted with his refusal to accept Jews trying to escape the Holocaust. His refusal meant that many more thousands, and perhaps millions more went to their death. Should that overwhelm any commemoration of FDR? I think not. Once again, he was simply not perfect.

Societal Mores Change Over Time

You get the picture. No one is perfect. We all are creatures of our time and place in history. Perhaps someday, anyone who has eaten meat will be condemned for the needless and cruel treatment of sentient animals such a diet causes. Under such an ideal, even someone like Martin Luther King would be expunged from history. Any scientist that proved the safety of their vaccines by first experimenting on rats, pigs or monkeys would be thrown into the dust bin of history. Does this remind you of the recent crusade against Dr. Sims, usually associated with establishing gynecology? His actions would be appalling today, but at the time, few would have given it the slightest thought.

Summary 

History is always subject to interpretation. However, if we don’t recognize that everyone has their faults, then we will not memorialize anyone. Graveyards are full of monuments to people who were imperfect. Does that mean we should remember their lives or simply forget them? I prefer remembering their moments of glory, not their imperfections.

As always, Clear and Candid.