By Aaron Shuchman ’21
There are around 1,800 Confederate statues, monuments, and other statue-like symbols remaining in the United States. From the Confederate flag flying at state capitols and NASCAR races to statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis to army installations named after Confederate generals, the legacy of the Confederacy is everywhere. Leaders of the Confederacy are honored in this way because they chose to betray and secede from the Union and fight a bloody war to defend the horrific institution of slavery.
They are the subject of statues not because they were great historical leaders; rather, they are being honored in this way because they led an institution that believed in the subjugation of an entire race—an institution that caused a war that cost over 600,000 American lives.
That legacy and these statues should be purged and destroyed entirely.
While the removal of symbols of the Confederate legacy is long overdue, there is a better solution with respect to monuments honoring other historical figures who—while having engaged in practices that are reprehensible by today’s standards—are being honored for their accomplishments that benefited the entire nation. In recent weeks, statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, among other important historical figures, have been defaced, toppled, or removed. The complaints against these men stem from charges of slave ownership and racism. While slavery was indeed an original sin that accompanied the founding of our nation, should it require us to erase from memory the accomplishments of presidents who founded our nation and then saved it from destruction—and slavery—four score and seven years later? Washington is memorialized in monuments for his unparalleled role in winning the American Revolution and guiding the United States through its first decades of existence. That does not mean that he was not a deeply flawed person who owned slaves—a legacy that should be acknowledged and discussed. Similarly, Jefferson is honored for writing the Declaration of Independence and the principles of equality and liberty that he championed for a new country, even if he failed spectacularly to live by those same principles in his own life—something that should be included in any discussion of his legacy. Lincoln is honored for his leadership during the turmoil of the Civil War, defeat of the Confederacy, and leadership role in dismantling slavery, not for an apparently insufficient commitment to abolishing slavery, instead favoring the preservation of the Union. While I support the removal of every Confederate monument and the renaming of institutions bearing the names of Confederate “heroes” like Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, there is a better approach with respect to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The solution is not destroying or removing their monuments but presenting their sins adjacent to their accomplishments, so their entire legacy is viewed in the appropriate context. History classes should be taught with this context in mind, and it is worth considering acknowledgment of their sins in any monument, as in the form of a plaque, but entirely removing Jefferson, Washington, or Lincoln from the public square is wrong.
In his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote of a nation where “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered … History has stopped.” Leaders like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, to be clear, were deeply flawed individuals who participated in—and benefited from—slavery and historical racial oppression in this country.
However, we will never be able to study or learn lessons from our history if history is erased in its entirety. Instead, the full story must be presented and memorialized every time these founders are honored.
Destroying monuments only prevents us from learning from our past and using predecessors’ mistakes to help us build a better future. Creating adjacent monuments or explanatory plaques for existing monuments—structures or statements that describe the sins of our founders’ lives—puts our great leaders’ mistakes at the top of our minds when we consider their legacies. Our national past is littered with great men and women who also committed grave, unforgivable sins. But if we purge ourselves of any remnants of our past, there will be no history for us to learn from in the present.