At a recent news conference, President Donald Trump baited Americans who want to see the removal of memorials that honor Confederate soldiers and leaders with the claim that taking them down erases or changes history.
He pointed out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave-owners and assumed that the public would share his belief about two things: One, that statues are what Americans rely on to learn about American history, and two, that certain figures from our nation’s history are untouchable regardless of the wrongs they may have committed. According to this logic, Washington and Jefferson’s legacy as leaders of the fledging American nation, for example, should overshadow (and perhaps cancel out) the fact that they owned people.
Trump’s rhetorical trick seems to have worked, since a significant number of historians, columnists and public figures are scrambling to articulate the differences between the moral characters of various slaveholders. In one opinion piece, a Harvard historian describes Washington and Jefferson as “imperfect men” whose historical significance lies in their role in creating the United States. In her estimation, the historical significance of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is that they fought for the Confederacy.
Unfortunately, this view turns a blind eye to the founding fathers’ role in validating the system of slavery that had taken root in the American colonies long before the establishment of the United States. The question of whether slavery would be permitted in America was hardly a sideline issue when delegates from the newly independent states debated whether or not to join together at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Historians have noted that slavery would be the economic foundation for almost half of the proposed nation, and that approximately one-third of the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia owned slaves. The issue of slavery was so contentious at the debates that a number of delegations refused to even consider unification if owning slaves and the slave trade were to be outlawed in the new country. Slavery, an institution predicated on the belief in white supremacy, is therefore foundational, not tangential, to our nation's history.
And yet, many of the opinion pieces that I’ve read relied upon the morally and intellectually faulty concept of what is “historically significant” — or more likely, what we prefer to consider historically significant — to explain why we should expunge Lee from public spaces and continue to comfortably revere Washington.
The problem here is that the delineation of what is and is not historically significant is entirely subjective. While it is the role of anyone interested in historical writing to decide what in the past is worth writing about, these judgments are based upon each writer’s own biases, including which historical figures she personally reveres and which she reviles.
“The issue isn’t whether Washington and Jefferson owned slaves,” says Scott Martelle in the Los Angeles Times. But why is this not the issue? To casually sidestep the inconvenient point that George Washington held people in bondage is to obfuscate rather than clarify categories of right and wrong in this conversation on history, memory, and race.
Progressives who make exceptions for Washington over Lee — both of whom participated wholly in the system of slavery even if only one of them had the opportunity to go to war in defense of the institution — is to my mind entirely bizarre. It is as though we might separate the “good” slaveholders from the “bad” slaveholders. Can there be such a thing as a good slaveholder?
More clarification about what history is, what memory is, and how both are used in our culture today is in order. Such a conversation might preclude some of the tangled logic that people like Donald Trump are using to defend racist public works.
“You are changing history,” Trump complained.
This is simply untrue. Statues are not history. They are not meant to objectively document the past. Rather, statues and other forms of memorialization — be they paintings, moments of silence or crosses on the wall — use historical figures and events to make claims about the moral landscape we aspire to inhabit. They say everything about the values of the people who commission and preserve them, which is why everyone should care when these values are repugnant.
“You are changing culture,” Trump protested, as if that’s a bad thing.
Yes, we are changing the cultural narratives that allow some slaveholders to be remembered in our society as visionary leaders and others as racist traitors — narratives that allow for double standards and moral inconsistency. Our culture was once built upon the belief that black people are inferior to white people, and that human beings can be held as property. That is no longer the culture that we aspire to.
No one should be afraid to take on the re-imagination of American history, of what it means to be an American or what we must do to defend American values. It begins with removing the images that glorify institutions we no longer try to defend as right and just, and taking down from the pedestal the likenesses of people we should no longer remember as heroes.