Tearing down monuments to the past

Posted on July 16, 2020

Burr: And when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?
Burr and Men: Who tells your story?
Angelica and Women: Who tells your story?

The most insightful thing in the play Hamilton is the theme that history is written by successors. How a person or cause is remembered is determined by who tells the story.

That’s important because the last several weeks have seen the removal or tearing down of monuments of every kind: confederate statues (more than one-hundred of them), military base and school names honoring confederates, the confederate battle flag (e.g., Mississippi and NASCAR), product names (e.g., Aunt Jemima, Eskimo Pie, the Redskins), and more.

This was both unprecedented and rather chaotic. There ought to be principles and ideals that we should follow when deciding about monuments. But what are they?

The first principle is that monuments should be removed if they celebrate ideas that are dishonorable or wrong. As art historian Jonah Engel Bromwich explained in the New York Times:

[A] statue is a bid for immortality. It’s a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people. So that is what’s really at issue here. It’s not the statues themselves but the point of view that they represent. And these are statues in public places, right? So these are statues claiming that this version of history is the public version of history.

Removal is justified when monuments promote a particular side in history, and it is the side of injustice. This is most obvious in confederate statues on public land and the naming of things for prominent confederates. These monuments were part of a decades-long effort to support white supremacy, segregation, and discrimination.

The second principle is that removal is particularly important when monuments are intended to intimidate groups of Americans and deny them their rights. Statues at statehouses, courthouses and public squares were designed to encourage white supremacists and discourage civil rights advocates. For decades they announced to the public that a given state, county or town sided with the confederacy and what it stood for.

It’s true that many individuals who appreciate southern history or symbols of the confederacy do not feel like they are supporting racism. Perhaps they aren’t. Nevertheless, it is high time to remove these monuments from public places to make clear that racism will not be tolerated as a basis for public policy.

Not all the monuments under attack concern the civil war. For example, what about Christopher Columbus? He began what became the genocide of native Americans and, in truth, there is nothing very heroic about his life. And yet, monuments to Columbus were not erected to support a political ideology.

And even if we remove his statues, do we also change place names like Columbus, Ohio or the District of Columbia? That seems a bridge too far. We’re not going to stop calling ourselves Americans if we decide we don’t like Amerigo Vespucci, are we? In any case, what’s the rush? Tributes to Columbus are deserving of a healthy public conversation.

There have also been attacks on some of our nation’s Founding Fathers because they were slaveholders. If we reject monuments to anyone who was a slaveholder, we’re eliminating virtually all the principal Founding Fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, John Jay and Chief Justice John Marshall were all slaveholders at some point. Among the rest, John Adams was entirely against slavery, but not Alexander Hamilton.

Yes, even Hamilton supported slavery to some extent. Hamilton’s wife’s family, the Schuylers, were major slaveholders (which is why a statue of Philip Schuyler in Albany was removed in June) and, as a lawyer, Hamilton assisted the family with slave transactions. In fact, while Hamilton publicly supported manumission, some historians think he and Eliza probably owned household slaves at some point in their marriage.

So, ironically, Lin-Manuel Miranda proves his point that history is a question of “who tells your story.” Theater-goers might conclude that Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist, pro-immigrant, and some kind of liberal. The living Hamilton was none of these.

But the musical play, like other less “dramatic” monuments to our Founding Fathers, was not created for the purpose of perpetuating, celebrating or rationalizing anything discreditable. Such monuments celebrate the beginnings of a nation that was dedicated, at least in its ideals, to a government of, by and for the people, and a society that rejected aristocracy and embraced “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

That truly deserves commemoration.