Annette Gordon-Reed says that no one needs to worry we’ll start taking down statues of Jefferson & Washington

Historians in the News
tags: Confederate Monuments



...The idea that taking down the monuments dishonored the Confederate dead is one commonly refuted. The statues being removed were not in cemeteries, nor were they dedicated to the Confederate dead—but to specific men. But even that was a charade. As [New Orleans Mayor Mitch] Landrieu pointed out, many of today’s contested Confederate monuments were raised long after the war, during periods of white backlash against civil rights: in the Redemption period, or during the mid-20th century civil-rights movement.

“They were not statutes that were put up to honor those particular men,” he said. “It was to send a message that the Confederacy was really the right cause, and not the wrong cause.”

The Lost Cause narrative was allowed to take root in part because of a desire among whites in both the North and South to foster reconciliation.

“The idea was to bring the country back together, and that’s what whites did,” said Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard professor of American history. “It’s like beating up your little brother and then you feel guilty and then you let him have his way.”

Viewed in this light, the removal of monuments is not an erasure of history, but an effort to revise the popular account toward a more accurate one: “We’re just beginning, in the last 40 years, to tell the true story of the country,” she said.

Some hesitation about removing monuments is grounded in a sense among Southerners of still being condescended to, Landrieu said. “I think some of the pushback is [the sense that] if we admit this and we admit we were wrong, it will feed into the misapprehension that people have” about continued racism in the South. Of course, it is just the opposite—the backlash only brings unwanted attention to the persistence of Confederate monuments—but as the poet Elizabeth Alexander pointed out, the North is hardly immune to racism itself. “As Bree Newsome said,” referring to the activist who, as part of a protest removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds in 2015, “the Confederacy may be a southern issue, but white supremacy is an American issue,” Alexander said.

Nevertheless, the concerns about erasure of history remain perhaps the most potent objection, espoused not only by irredentist rebels but even by those who declare strong disdain for the Confederacy. And Gordon-Reed offered two rejoinders.

The first was that removing a statue hardly constitutes erasing history. “We’re always going to know who Robert E. Lee is,” she said. “The question is where these monuments are. The public sphere should be comfortable for everybody.”

But what about the idea that once the Lees and Stonewall Jacksons and P.G.T. Beauregards are pulled down, the revisionists will inevitably start agitating for pulling down monuments to slave-owning Founding Fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

But Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, said it was not hard to draw a bright line separating Jefferson’s generation of Virginians from the ones who tried to secede.

“We can distinguish between people who wanted to build the United States of America and people who wanted to destroy it,” she said. “It’s possible to recognize people’s contributions at the same time as recognizing their flaws.” ...





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