The Confederacy Is Historically Important, but Confederate 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.