America Has Been Fighting Over Statues Since the Founding

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tags: Civil War, Thomas Jefferson, Confederacy, Alexander Hamilton, Confederate Monuments



Stephen F. Knott is the co-author of  "Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America" and a professor at the United States Naval War College.

President Trump may be infuriating and offending many with his calls to save our “great statues/heritage,” but the unending uproar over Confederate monuments isn’t the first time Americans have feuded over whom we should preserve in plaster—and who’s best left forgotten.

That’s a clash that is literally as old as the nation itself. It began more than 200 years ago with a vicious debate over how the country should celebrate the founding of the American Republic—a debate that continued well into the 20th century.

The controversy started the moment Thomas Jefferson opted to form an op position party to contest the policies of the George Washington administration, particularly those of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, whom Jefferson believed was a monarchist, if not an outright British agent. Over the ensuing years, Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans battled it out—not just over whose party should govern the country but also over which side’s principles had been most instrumental in and representative of the birth of the United States.

This battle to spin the story of the founding was fought largely in print. A ferocious newpaper war raged throughout the 1790s, with America’s political factions accusing each other of betraying the “Spirit of 1776.” Hamilton’s Federalists were convinced that Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were devotees of all things French, including Godless atheism, while Jefferson and his followers believed that Federalists were intent on restoring the British throne. Hamilton was “bewitched and perverted by the British example” and favored a “monarchy bottomed on corruption,” Jefferson alleged.

But there was another front in this bitter war: Statuary. While Jefferson and his followers tended to oppose monuments devoted to any of the nation’s founders—such effects were were trappings of monarchy, Jefferson maintained—they were positively apoplectic over any suggestion that Hamilton was worthy of commemoration. In the aftermath of Hamilton’s duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in July, 1804, Jefferson and his lieutenants were concerned that the emotional response to Hamilton’s death might lead to the erection of statues celebrating a man they despised. John Armstrong, a Jeffersonian lieutenant, reported to James Madison from New York City four days after the duel that “the public sympathy is a good deal excited for Hamilton and his family, whether this is spontaneous or artificial I do not know, but it probably partakes of both characters.” The city of New York “took the direction and assumed the expense of his funeral, and the English interest talk of erecting a statue to his memory,” Armstrong reported.

Armstrong’s dreaded “English interest” succeeded in erecting a marble statue of a toga-wearing Hamilton in 1835. The sculpture was placed in the rotunda of the New York Stock Exchange, and was the first marble statue produced in the United States. In the minds of Jefferson’s heirs, the fact that a statue of Hamilton graced the New York Stock Exchange simply confirmed his role as the founding plutocrat. The idea that Hamilton was the champion of wealth and privilege would be invoked for decades by Democratic Party politicians long after Hamilton’s death. ...




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