More Confederate Statues Need to Come Down
As Confederate statues topple across the country, it may seem as if an era of glorifying the Confederacy is finally coming to an end, but hundreds are still standing as monuments to slavery and white supremacy.
Hundreds of Confederate statues still remain. They are displayed in 31 states and Washington, D.C. Even states that were never in the Confederacy bear the marks of that uprising.
There are at least 700 Confederate statues spread across 31 states and Washington, D.C. Other estimates put the number of Confederate memorials as high as more than double that, or nearly 2,000. The statues exist far outside of the former Confederate states themselves. The Confederacy itself was only 11 states. Virginia and Texas continue to have the highest number of Confederate statues of any state. Virginia has well over 100 Confederate statues—with more than 41 dedicated to General Robert E. Lee alone. For every Confederate statue that has come down in the past few months, ten still remain.
They don't make sense in the first place. Confederate statues celebrate Civil War leaders that wanted to secede from the U.S., killed hundreds of thousands of fellow American citizens, and, ultimately, lost.
The Confederacy is an important part of history, but the statues aren’t. Few would argue against the enduring historical and political importance of the Confederacy—but its symbols are not themselves significant.
Clearly, Confederate secession and the Civil War are historically significant. The fault lines of that era continue to define contemporary life.
The secession of southern states to form the Confederacy and the ensuing Civil War remain one of the most important chapters of American history. To this day, the Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in American history, inflicting more casualties than the total American deaths of World War I and World War II combined. The Civil War radically reshaped American politics and laid the framework for debates around states’ rights versus federal authority that continues to this day. Regional divisions and political issues falling along North vs. South lines pervades cultural discourse even in 2020. The war also served as a cultural touchstone for many who still believe the Confederacy was rightful in its actions and that it is part of 'Southern Heritage,' forging stereotypes about both those in the North and South that have lasted in the centuries since. The secessionist movement was also historically significant in exposing just how much the American economy, specifically American exports, were reliant on slave labor. Both North and South profited off slave labor, with American factories making goods such as textiles from the raw materials supplied by the South. The emancipation of enslaved people, which resulted from the Civil War, is also one of the most important historical events in U.S. history. That decision enfranchised several million people and their descendants.
But just because something is historically important, doesn’t mean its symbols are worth preserving. They are an ineffective way to teach history.
The symbols of the Confederacy are not in and of themselves significant, because symbols do not necessarily teach the history they represent. Statues in particular are not an effective way of teaching history, because a few lines on a plaque underneath a statue do not give enough context to convey a complex conflict. When the primary purpose of an object is to glorify something or someone, it cannot objectively teach anything. That cuts to the heart of any argument of keeping Confederate symbols "for history's sake." To take another example, everyone can agree that the rise of Hitler and the ensuing World War II were historically significant events. They caused the deaths of millions of people, reshaping both European and transatlantic politics along the way. But that does not mean swastikas and Nazi memorabilia need to be preserved or put in public places in order to remember that history. Germany has no Nazi memorials or monuments. There are numerous monuments to remember the Holocaust as a way of not forgetting the true cost of the violence inflicted by the Nazis, such as memorials to the Jewish people killed, or statues honoring the soldiers that fought to liberate them. Memorials to slaves, for instance, could serve the same purpose.
It was unpatriotic at its core. Seceding from the Union would later be considered treason.
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was indicted for treason after the end of the Civil War. Davis—along with many other Confederate leaders and soldiers—would later be pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. But the fact remains that they were charged with one of the most serious federal crimes in existence: betraying one's own country. What could be more unpatriotic than the crime of treason? Having "Confederate pride" is at odds with upholding the Constitution. It was an uprising against what the United States represented. Some have made the argument that America's very founding is based on treason; that the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy was the most treasonous act of all. And, they are not entirely wrong. But England is not dotted with statues in honor of the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington.
The statues themselves don't have cultural, historical, or artistic significance. The monuments and statues of Confederate-era generals were not erected by people to remember history but a way to reshape it.
Suzanne C. Grim / Shutterstock.com
The vast majority were erected long after the war itself. And most of them were privately commissioned.
The statues are not culturally significant artifacts from the Civil War-era because most of them were built decades later. The vast majority of Confederate statues were commissioned in the early 1900s, at the height of Jim Crow laws. Nearly 400 statues were commissioned during that period alone, as racist Southerners tried to recast history to justify discriminatory practices. The choice to have the statues was not a decision made by the people, or even by local government—the statues were rather commissioned by private interest groups. The United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored hundreds of statues during this time period alone. This decision was part of a much broader campaign to reshape Civil War history at the dawn of the 20th century. The United Daughters of the Confederacy has continued the quest long after the close of the war, commissioning a statue as recently as 2011. Confederate statues were built not to remember the past, but to revise our understanding of the Civil War and to inspire a possible future where that understanding becomes operational. In other words, statues of Robert E. Lee were never about honoring his legacy as much as hinting at a future where once again white Americans would rise above and rule Black Americans and other people of color.
It’s only when the act of creating the monument is significant that the result itself is meaningful. They are imbued with value when they represent core principles.
The Egyptian pyramids were a testament to architectural prowess and human sacrifice. Their existence represents both the rulers who commissioned them and the laborers who strained to build them.
The 130 or so pyramids were built as tombs and mausoleums for the region's royal families, the oldest of which was built around 2600 BC. How these massive structures were constructed with no modern machinery, in the middle of a desert, largely remains a mystery, though some recently discovered evidence suggests an ingenious use of pulley and ramp systems. The shape of the pyramids itself is a testament to the visionary thinking of their architects. Some think the pyramid shape mimics the rays of sun, shining down upon the earth. Pyramids were often finished off with limestone on their faces so they could be visible across the desert. The pyramids were a symbol of the pharaohs' power at the time, with many revered as demigods. But, the structures themselves also stand as a testament to the generations of laborers who toiled to build them, many of them slaves. The pyramids are now inscribed in UNESCO's list of top world heritage sites for their cultural significance. They are also considered one of the original "seven wonders of the world." The authenticity and enduring integrity of the work after centuries is part of what makes them so special. UNESCO called the Great Pyramid of Giza "the only surviving wonder of the ancient world." They pyramids are important not only for their aesthetic and architectural beauty but for their historical significance. Even today, historians are still learning new things about ancient Egypt by studying the pyramids.
The Milan Duomo has an interesting background for how it came into existence. It represents centuries of artistic innovation.
Italian art and architecture is world renowned, but Milan's Cathedral, or Duomo, is one the most intricately crafted and artistic structures in the world. At more than 600 years old, the Duomo remains the fifth largest Christian church in the world. Construction on the Duomo began all the way back in the 14th century—in 1386–and only finished in 1965. Throughout the centuries, several generations of Italy's best craftsman put their life's work into the building and its decoration. But, it's not just the building itself that is impressive and a testament to Italian religious artistry. The Duomo, which took nearly six centuries to complete, is home to a treasure chest of artworks. The cathedral houses some 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures on its face and inside as well. All are handcrafted and share an aesthetic with the Duomo itself. The construction involved hundreds of architects and artisans throughout the years, and the Duomo reflects both the periods of time during during which it was constructed and the individuals who made it what it has become today.
Paris' Notre Dame represents centuries of construction and reconstruction. The artistry, the materials, the labor, the sacrifice, and the endurance bear witness to generations of Parisians.
The medieval Catholic cathedral has been part of the Parisian architecture skyline since 1260. It has withstood the French Revolution, Napoleon, World War I, World War II, bombing attempts, and the 2019 fire. The building represents the enduring spirit of centuries of Parisians. It is as much a testament to the artistry involved in the use of flying buttresses to the delicate details in awe-inspiring stained glass windows, as to how the city of Paris continues to thrive. The very architecture was also called "a poor people's book" because of the many sculptures which line its walls and face depicting scenes from the Bible to benefit the illiterate. Some sculptures were destroyed by French revolutionaries, but many remain. The church, meaning "Our Lady" in French, has seen innumerable historic events. It was once the seat of the archbishop, and it served as the location for Henry VI's coronation. It would later inspire Victor Hugo to write "the Hunchback of Notre Dame," in which he referred to the cathedral as a "symphony in stone." Following the 2019 fire, author Summer Brennan wrote: "Notre Dame has borne witness to the rituals of Paris; its markets, its protest and revolutions, its lovers. The cyclops gaze of its rose windows — miraculously spared through this latest disaster — have observed as the days and decades and centuries pass through the hands of the city like prayer beads. Be it magic or art that most animates such a place for you, each share the power to conjure. We are all, sometimes, in need of sanctuary."
Confederate statues are neither aspirational nor insightful. A monument’s value comes from its representing the guidance of past generations.
Confederate statues have only inspired hate, even serving to fuel white supremacists. For instance, during riots in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2018 protesters wanting the statue of General Robert E. Lee removed from a public park clashed with white supremacists who called for it to remain in place. Other Confederate statues have been tagged with graffiti and even torn down during the latest Black Lives Matter protests. The world does not have public memorials to Hitler because a statue of him is not needed to learn from the atrocities committed. Statues of Hitler can only guide future generations toward hatred, and the same is true of Confederate monuments today. Memorials to the victims of those crimes, however, are essential. The pyramids, Duomo, and Notre Dame may have complicated histories, whether their involvement with an institution like the Catholic church or the possible use of slave labor. But their primary message is not one of hatred. What sets them apart from Confederate memorials is that they can be looked to for inspiration and lessons. In some sense, each site represents the best of what the culture that produced it has to offer. These Confederate statues are also not of any artistic significance. Many were not even made by Southern artists, nor do they reflect any kind of lived experience by many in the South—both Black and white —since they were largely, aggressively commissioned by wealthy members of social organizations.
They are hurtful to many. From glorifying slavery to serving as a painful reminder of the bloodiest war in American history, these monuments cause harm.
Confederate monuments can serve as a painful reminder, especially to Black people, of a time when their ancestors were held in slavery. According to the most recent census data, the majority of Black people in the U.S. reside in southern states, where the majority of the statues are located. For many of those millions of Black Americans living near these statues, monuments to generals of the Confederacy mean monuments to men who fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. Even for Black Americans whose ancestors were never slaves, the statues represent the long history of violence and discrimination inflicted upon Black people in America for centuries. The pain caused by Confederate monuments extends outside of Black communities, too. Confederate statues recall the most divisive point in American history. They celebrate a Civil War in which fellow Americans massacred each other by the thousands. Letting them stand glorifies division instead of symbolizing unity. The Washington Post described the debate over Confederate statues as "personal and painful." It draws in issues of family and history, whether descended from slave, Union, or Confederate. “We are talking about people’s ancestors," Gregg Kimball, a historian at the Library of Virginia, told the Post. “That’s a powerful thing you’re talking about there — you’re talking about somebody’s people.”
They are ultimately just monuments to slavery. And all monuments glorifying slavery should be destroyed.
Anyone who argues that symbols of the Confederacy are about states' rights is willfully ignoring the express purpose of the Confederacy: slavery. Multiple states clearly stated this belief when they seceded. "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world," wrote Mississippi when it seceded, adding, "a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization." South Carolina, the first state to secede, used the word "slave" or "slavery" more than a dozen times in its declaration of secession. The Confederacy was about fighting to keep slavery, and therefore statues of its leaders are effectively monuments to slavery. Many of the men cast in stone fought and died to keep the institution of slavery intact. By honoring these men and their cause, we glorify the institution of slavery itself. This horrific institution stole the lives of millions of people and their offspring. Any symbols that glorify this bloody history must be toppled.
Dozens more statues need to come down to even make a dent in all of the harm that they cause, so long as they continue to mar the American landscape.