By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
It’s the Fourth of July, and America is celebrating Independence Day, while protestors are tearing down historic monuments and maligning America’s Founding Fathers as slaveholders to conform history to their modern ideals. History contains the good, bad and ugly; and we need to remember the bad and ugly events of the past so that we won’t repeat them.
The legal and moral standards of legitimacy (what is right and wrong) are relative to time and place, and have changed dramatically over time. Slavery was legal at the birth of our nation and at the beginning of the Civil War. Even the church was split on the moral issue. The legitimacy of our past leaders should be considered in the context of their time, not ours.
Abraham Lincoln exemplified the complexity of the issue of slavery. His objective was to preserve the Union by either fighting to prevent secession or accepting slavery. Fighting secession conflicted with the American precedent of self-determination when it seceded from the British Empire. Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833, and we’ll never know what may have happened if Lincoln had put the abolition of slavery ahead of preserving the Union.
In 1876 Frederick Douglas questioned whether Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he didn’t urge the removal of the Lincoln memorial. Such monuments remind us of the lessons of history taught by imperfect leaders who lived in earlier eras, and we should learn from their lives--the good, bad and the ugly--as we shape our future.
The civil disobedience campaign of MLK protesting the separate but equal laws in the South reminded us that changing immoral standards of legitimacy can be a long and painful process, but it produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our historic monuments remind us of an imperfect past, and destroying them as painful lessons of legitimacy can threaten our future.
Protests against injustice are protected by the First Amendment and are important in changing immoral standards of legitimacy, but the right to protest doesn’t extend to mob action destroying property. Law and order are essential to provide equal justice under law and cannot be sacrificed to mob rule. That can only lead to anarchy and the end of democracy.
Black Lives Matter protests began with a legitimate demand to end police brutality, and racial issues are embedded in police reform; but the protests have taken racial issues far beyond the objective of police reform and have made its politics more problematic. Police reform requires a politics of racial reconciliation, not a politics of racial division.
The angry protests and destruction of monuments to the Civil War era evoke echoes from 1860, and raise the specter of racial hatred that could once again destroy the fabric of America’s democracy. Attributing today’s racial issues to slavery threatens our future by further polarizing America's racial divisions rather than seeking to reconcile them.
The 1876 address of Frederick Douglass at the Emancipation Memorial sheds light on the complex politics that had Lincoln sacrifice the abolition of slavery to preserving the Union. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/06/27/emancipation-monument-in-washington-dc-targeted-by-protests/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most.
Great Britain’s Slavery Abolition Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery in most of its colonies. See Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wilberforce. It’s interesting to speculate on what kind of strategic alliance Lincoln might have put together with Great Britain if he had put the abolition of slavery ahead of preserving a Union with slaveholding states.
David Von Dredle has described what tearing down statues reveals about revol;utionary movements. “The impulse to destroy monuments feels radical to each new wave of revolutionaries. In fact, iconoclasm — the tearing down of icons — is as deeply ingrained in human nature as monument-making itself. Moses learned that his people had made a golden calf in his absence; he threw the statue into a fire and unleashed an orgy of violence that left 3,000 Israelites dead.
What all these stories have in common is that they are stories I can tell years, even centuries — even millennia — after the fact to readers who have some sense of the scenes and characters involved. The Golden Calf, the Emperor Domitian, the Catholic saints, the king of France and “Uncle Joe” Stalin weren’t erased from history when their statues toppled. Quite the opposite.
A leading scholar of the Roman damnatio memoriae, Charles W. Hedrick, remarks on what might be called the iconoclast’s dilemma: Those who destroy monuments create “significant omissions, gaps and erasures” that “call attention to what they conceal, and thus undermine their own express purpose.”
Protesters may find that ripping down statues creates a desire to know why those statues were raised in the first place. This exploration naturally leads to an assessment of the radicals themselves. The process can be historically clarifying, as in the case of Confederate monuments. Americans are asking whether the rebels’ effort to break up the United States to create a new nation more explicitly dedicated to white supremacy is one we wish to honor. By a wide majority, the answer is no — and the statues are coming down.
But then statues of Washington and Jefferson are ripped down, too, and many Americans begin to feel that something very complicated — the moral failures of otherwise consequential figures — is being reduced to absolutes. Or consider a different variety of complication: The statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington’s Lafayette Square is, quite apart from any merits of Jackson himself, an artistic masterpiece. Its future should be decided through reasoned discussion, not by ropes and sledgehammers.
Most people are leery of absolutists. And they are downright repulsed by vandals. The ruin of Heg’s statue burnished, rather than effaced, the memory of an immigrant volunteer who died in the fight for emancipation. But such a senseless act blemishes the protests.
This continuum, from peaceful protests to wanton destruction, is an arc traveled by iconoclasts through the ages. And it may illuminate the frequent failures of revolutionary movements. Destruction is easy, persuasion is difficult. The ground has shifted; the country can be persuaded to look at its past anew. Vandalism, however, will lose the argument.”