In recent weeks, there have been various attempts—some successful and some unsuccessful—to remove, deface, or destroy historical statues depicting persons who are viewed as in some sense offensive. Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Revolutionary War hero Colonel William Crawford, medical doctor J. Marion Sims, Christopher Columbus, Peter Stuyvesant, Justice Roger B. Taney (of Dred Scott), and several assorted commemorations of fallen Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Confederate women. In some cases, city officials (such as in Baltimore) preemptively ordered the removals to prevent violence; in other cases citizens were arrested for harming the statues. On the other hand, Gettysburg has announced they are not removing their statues of Confederate generals. What do our readers think about this turn of affairs? What principles should guide action about historical statues? How broad a net should be cast, if at all (with some suggesting statues of George Washington, a slaveholder, are also offensive). We welcome your thoughts!

Full Citation for this Article: Editorial Board, SquareTwo Journal (2017) "Readers’ Puzzle for Summer 2017: The Question of Historical Statues," SquareTwo, Vol. 10 No. 2 (Summer 2017), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ReadersPuzzleSummer2017.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 9 Comments

I. Evis Farka Haake​

Due to the lack of seriously addressing the concerns of the African-American communities (violence, incarceration, marginalization of their communities, integration, etc), the tensions are very high. Issues are considered under high tensions and those who should be heard are silenced. The status of the Confederates soldiers and generals are not offensive in themselves. But their presence in public places raises questions: Why are they there? To glorify, to teach history, to remember? To whom are they speaking to? And what are they saying? It seems to me that the states that lost the war erected such statues to glorify the cause and the principles for which the war was fought. In addition, these states probably erected such statuses at a time when most of their African-American population had moved North. Or when they were in small numbers and with no political power. Now, the demographics of those states have changed and more white people thing differently now than in the past. And as all communities in these states ponder about the lessons learned from the Civil War using the lens of our times, they do not share the sentiments with those local governments that erected such status in the past.

We have learned that our well-meaning, bright and educated leaders that created this country, believed in modern principles as applicable only to their class and race. However, our experience accumulated since then has taught us that that was wrong. The principles and ideas should be equally applied to all citizens who contribute to the nation. And this brings us to the question: Who should write the history of that time in the art form? The winners? All sides? How should it be presented to all?

What principles should guide action about historical statues?

First, the principle of inclusion should guide it. The public space belongs to all communities and it should be a safe place for public discourse. Therefore, the statues of these famous men should take into consideration certain parameters: they have to speak to all communities in the state and they need to tell the truth.

How broad a net should be cast, if at all (with some suggesting statues of George Washington, a slaveholder, are also offensive). We welcome your thoughts!

These great good men believed in slavery - the exploration of a group of people to the benefit of another one. The statues should not glorify them. And they should not be erected in public spaces because these men were not heroes during the war; and certainly not heroes to all. Many contributed considerably to the advancement of science, art and nation-building. And their legacy deserves attention and admiration but only where it is due. Their role in the war or as slave-owners was to the advancement of a horrible political and economic system based on exploitation. So, when a statue of a historical men is erected, we need to ask the questions: what aspect of his life do we want to represent about this man/woman? Where is the appropriate place to erect the statue? My opinion is that these statues should not be destroyed because the sentiments of the loosing side are important, and these people were great in other aspects of their lives. We simply cannot represent such figures in a black/white dichotomy anymore and their place is in museums not public spaces. Museums allow the public to learn about all aspects but public spaces do not have that purpose. We need to give them credit for their contributions but also recognize that their beliefs in slavery and inferiority of the Afro-American race continues to penetrate our modern times and poisons our communities. Their actions and examples matter today and statues might be too simple of a representation of these complex men and times that keep affecting us today.


II. Stephen Cranney

This is a clear continuum issue. On one side, virtually everybody can agree that we shouldn't have statues of Nazi physicians even if they did discover some things during their human experiments. On the other hand, if we required perfection for every statued figure we wouldn't have any statues. I actually have days when I'm sympathetic to the latter position; we should lionize ideals, not humans which are always fallible. However, if we are going to have our little mini-shrines to human beings it isn't so much a question of whether to have statues with morally objectionable issues in their past, but rather how objectionable do those issues need to be. If not actively fighting slavery was grounds for excommunication from history's gallery of heroes then virtually nobody would qualify until the Middle Ages. This isn't to in any way excuse the behavior but to contextualize it and give us a little humility about our own situation, since if we were born in those situations we would almost certainly be slavery supporters, so for "men of their day" not having their statue should be a statement about the principle they violated more than who they were, since it was the contingencies of their birth, and not any particular inherent moral inferiority on our part, that lead them to espousing evil institutions.


III. Neal Kramer

I think I can understand a number of points of view on this question. The greater the number of statues we suddenly remove, the less comfortable I become. It begins to feel like mass hysteria to me. But I have had a very firm position with regard to the Confederates for a long time. I favor taking down many of the statues. I think it's an act of national contrition, an appeal to God for national forgiveness. I think we should expect exceptional acts such as these from an exceptional nation.

While I can agree that some of what the Confederate generals did during the war could be seen as driven by honor, patriotism, and other noble virtues, once I place that in the context of the fight to save and extend slavery I lose a lot of respect for them. I can't justify thinking of them as heroes or role models. Robert E. Lee is the worst paradox of all. His choice to fight for slavery cannot be justified by the supposed moral clarity he otherwise possessed (the myth is better than the man in his case, as it is with so many others).

So the statues become something like idols to false gods for me. In ways that make me very uncomfortable, these statues justify slave culture. They suggest that slavery could not have been that bad if the culture produced some of our very greatest Americans. Gettysburg, of all places, should not perpetuate that myth. I realize that I'm on something of a slippery slope here already.

The Constitution of the United States, which I revere and support, created a subset of American politics that allowed slavery to become an incredible political advantage for the southern states. They had every incentive to try to keep the advantage the constitution gave them. This included concocting bizarre arguments justifying chattel slavery as morally good for slaves and passing bad legislation upheld by southern dominated courts to keep slavery alive and expand it into the territories. The slave power, as it was called, threatened to tear the country apart as westward expansion continued. The Confederacy became its most powerful political expression. The war fought to protect slavery and the slave power is the least justifiable act of people we might be tempted to think of as great Americans. I think it excludes them from praise, emulation, and reverence.

Because of this fact about the constitution and its construction of the slave power, it may seem like I must condemn everyone who had a part in writing it or benefited from it. I am uncomfortable going that far. For instance, I'd like to try to save George Washington. I realize that I've created a conundrum for myself. Logic alone may require my condemnation of many individuals and institutions.

In the end, I believe we should take some of the statues down. But I think Lincoln taught us how this ought to be accomplished. It should be done with sober awareness of why it's happening. It should create moments of restrained patriotic reflection. There should be no malicious fervor, no tawdry celebrations. The spirit of Lincoln's second inaugural address ought to inform these events, with malice toward none and charity for all.


IV. B. Kent Harrison

In general, I favor leaving the statues and monuments in place. One can always say something about the background of the honorees in the plaques adorning their monuments, if needed. (If a statue were really offensive--hypothetically, if it showed a lynching--then it should be taken down.) Taking statues down erases part of our history. It is akin to the denying of the past in the novel 1984 or to book burning. In recent years Woodrow Wilson has come under fire because he was racist. So be it; but he contributed much to American culture--president of Princeton, US President, architect of the League of Nations. And so what if Washington and Jefferson owned slaves? Without them America would not exist. Robert E. Lee was a wonderful man; he served in the Confederate Army because he was loyal to his home state of Virginia. We all have imperfections; there has been only one perfect individual who ever lived; but we don't advocate doing away with all of us. It is better to leave our history in place, warts and all, to show how far we have come and how much we have yet to achieve.


V. Scott Hammond

The Mormon version of commemoration statues are Arnold Friberg’s paintings. Remember Nephi with rippling muscles and a tan, like he had just stepped off Laguna Beach? No one to my knowledge has made a similar painting of Lemuel, or Korihor. We don’t even detect our villains. But we seem pretty clear about who the good guys and the bad guys are. In the postmodern rewrite of history is is assumed that Columbus knew that he was carrying measles virus, and that George Washington was just another politician. Our overconfident relabeling based on some historical revision fails to acknowledge that monument or not, all these people are in the historical record and their roles will be questioned and requestioned in each generation.


VI. Michelle Brignone

I generally don’t believe in revisionist history, or trying to whitewash, ignore, or hide ‘bad’ history. Our past is our past and the only way we are going to learn from it is to teach it. However, I think there is a difference between teaching our past and celebrating it. Usually when a statute is erected, it is done to celebrate and commemorate a person or an event. Is it in poor taste to erect a statute to a Ku Klux Klan leader, yes, has it happened, yes.

I believe the problem we are currently facing is due in part to our youth as a country. We are still working out the kinks and trying to decide who we are and what we stand for, so there are lots of competing interpretations. There are plenty of countries much older than the United States that have unfortunate statutes. But because they are more secure in who they are (for the most part), or just older and used to living with the mistakes of the past, they don’t fret about them quite as much as we are right now. Additionally, there are long simmering divisions in this country that have never been dealt with and are now coming to a head. If we had addressed slavery and racism after the civil war, or after the major gains of the Civil Rights movement, would we still be having this conversation? We did not address either side’s complaints, so the wounds have been left to fester until they are once again boiling over.

Because no one is going to agree on where the line should be drawn, I think a better course of action instead of taking down every single statue, is to simply add a plaque to every statute with a simple succinct factual summary of both sides of the story. “George Washington was the first president of the United States, he was also a slave owner.” “Christopher Columbus is credited with ‘discovering’ America but is also responsible for the deaths of X number of Native Americans who were already living here.” The descriptions can be just that short or take up a paragraph or two, just depends on the space constraints of each statue. Then let each person decide for themselves what they think. With regards to the battlefields, I think taking down the statutes of either side would be a mistake, we cannot tell a one sided version of history and expect people to learn from it and not repeat it.


VII. Valerie Hudson

I went to J.E.B. Stuart High School. At the time, it was just the air we breathed in Virginia. But now I feel my high school should not have borne his name.

Like Michelle, I feel there is a fine line between public remembrance and public celebration, and every generation must decide where that line lies. (Of course, private remembrance and private celebration should be untrammeled.) I would be happy to see books about Stuart written. I would be happy to see a display in a Civil War museum about Stuart. I am not so sure that Stuart should have a high school named after him. In the larger history of our nation, Stuart did not help us move towards a better future for our children.

To my mind, the Civil War statues are a slightly different matter, then, than statues of Washington and Jefferson. I think it is credible to claim that in the larger history of our nation, Washington and Jefferson helped us. But I also agree, again with Michelle, that a plaque could be affixed to the memorials of Washington and Jefferson reminding us, for example, that both these men owned slaves, but also that slavery was not illegal at the time. That would be the nuance we need for these cases.

However, I think the hardest cases of all are the cases such as Christopher Columbus and James Cook. The non-indigenous populations of the United States and Australia celebrate these men as the discoverers of the lands that would one day become their country. However, the indigenous populations can equally claim that these men were harbingers of genocide, atrocity, and crimes against humanity in addition to outright territorial theft. I feel I need to think further on these last cases before commenting on them, but I do think the issue is an important one and the indigenous view cannot be dismissed.

As a feminist, I am also interested in the gender angle to this discussion, which takes two forms for me. One, there are so few public memorials of women as to be laughable. This is wrong—our young women cannot see the way forward if they cannot see themselves in the heroic history of their nation. Can we also talk about that issue when discussing the nature of public remembrance? Second, there are also specific crimes against women for which we also need to “nuance” the history of great men. Like slavery, they were simply considered “normal” in their time. Kennedy and King, for example, were serial adulterers, causing incredible pain to their families: why doesn’t that behavior sully their legacy in the same way that slave-owning does? A fuller conversation on the issue of public remembrance would include—must include—a gender dimension, as well.


VIII. Rachel Zirkle

I grew up in Georgia, not too far outside Atlanta, and every summer a common family and church activity for Mutual would be to attend the laser show at Stone Mountain. Stone Mountain is a large granite rock (the biggest "mountain" around for us) that boasts a Confederate Memorial carving of Civil War generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, as well as Jefferson Davis. The laser show was a rousing patriotic mix of songs about America and the old South, and I never thought about it being controversial. Now, after a decade of living outside the South, I look back and think how odd that was--the commemoration of a losing side that represented things I ethically oppose. Yet for us, it was a celebration of tradition, family gathering, a warm summer night with a picnic, music, and dancing. From my own experience, I can see how--depending on your perspective--places, statues, and other "things" can mean different things to different people.

However, while artwork and expression are always open to different interpretations, I believe as a nation we should be mindful where we place these pieces that are controversial. Buildings that are meant to represent all its citizens, like Capitol buildings, should truly represent all its citizens. I wouldn't be opposed to removing artwork that is found offensive to a different location. I don't think we should destroy them, because one cannot erase history or dictate others' views, but they could be a catalyst to creating new artwork telling the other side of the story.

We need those stories to also be told through statue and art, (and to have them also centrally displayed) to show future generations our history as it really was, to spur discussion, and bring about change. These competing perspectives shown through works of art would be powerful side by side--I think our lack of understanding largely stems from only knowing one side of the story. History is best learned from when it's multi-dimensional.


IX. Erik Linton

As a full time artist, I have mixed feelings about the proper response to controversial statues. While this issue has become increasingly relevant since the violence in Charlottesville, this is not a new problem. For example, after the Declaration of Independence had been read to the public for the first time in 1776, a mob of soldiers and citizens pulled down the statue of King George III in Bowling Green. A more recent example was the destruction of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square, marking the end of the battle of Baghdad. To those people, the statues represented an idea that they wanted to remove from their society. Statues have always been used as a romantic way to memorialize people and ideologies. It’s no surprise that the removal of statues is one of the first symbolic demonstrations of a change of power or shifting ideologies.

Personally, I am not opposed to the idea that our art changes with our social norms and ideologies. Preserving art of the sake of art and history is the job of a museum. In the end, our democratic principles should guide our actions towards the historical statues in our communities. It is the job of our elected public officials to represent the voice of their constituents, even when it comes to the statues that are erected in public places. As constituents, it is our job to engage in dialogue and make our voices heard.