Monuments to a Complicated PastRoundup
tags: slavery, monuments, public history
Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton. His many books include No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding and The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln.
On the evening of July 9, 1776, after a public reading of the newly adopted Declaration of Independence, some 40 Americans gathered at Bowling Green in lower Manhattan, lashed ropes to a statue of an imperious King George III on horseback and pulled it to the ground, where it shattered. The patriots melted down the shards and made them into musket balls to fight the American Revolution.
The building of Confederate statues and monuments began as a counterrevolution in historical memory with deep political significance. Starting in the 1890s, hundreds of monuments appeared across the South in honor of the defeated Confederacy. Ostensibly designed to glorify the “Lost Cause” of secession, the monuments’ actual purpose was to celebrate the violent overthrow of Reconstruction and the re-subjugation of the formerly enslaved and their progeny into the economic peonage and racial caste system of Jim Crow. For more than a century, those fraudulent, oppressive monuments stood undisturbed, until the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans and Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 touched off a major controversy. Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, that controversy has exploded into an escalating crisis of national self-understanding.
At one extreme stands President Trump, who has proclaimed himself a champion of the disgraced Confederate symbols and lashed out at all who would remove them as unhinged leftists out to “desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments.” To Mr. Trump, who has weaponized the Lost Cause mystique for his own purposes, an attack on Confederate symbols is no different from an attack on America itself. His ignorant rendering of history exalts the defenders of slavery who fired on the Stars and Stripes to instigate the country’s bloodiest war. He equates their treason with American valor.
At the other extreme are scattered bands of nihilists, anarchists and simply uninformed protesters who have defaced or destroyed monuments dedicated to Americans, from revolutionaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to antislavery leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant—and even, in one incident, the radical abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
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