A common analogy used to justify removing Confederate statues is that of the Nazis, in Germany. After all, the argument goes, those who lose wars waged to kill or enslave their own people don’t get monuments.
But there is an important difference between the lack of Nazi statues in Germany and the plethora of Confederate ones in the United States. The prohibition on Nazi statues began the moment the war was over. They were never built. The Confederate monuments, on the other hand, went up beginning about 10 years after the war, and continued to be built for another century.
This distinction matters for several reasons. The first is that Confederate monuments were not symbols of the South’s defeat in war, but of its victory in peace. The prominent statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia was commissioned in 1876, just as the period known as Reconstruction was coming to a close. For a decade, the Republican federal government had sought to control and change Southern society. By 1877, those efforts were over and the South felt it had survived with its pride and power intact.
The federal government’s decision to restore power to the South had brutal, often horrific consequences. The era of Jim Crow laws was ushered in, erasing many of the gains blacks in the South made during Reconstruction. But this decision came with benefits for Northern states, which had grown tired of the effort and expense of occupying and controlling the South. It may have been a deal with the devil, but it was a deal that would shape the history of North and South for the next century.
A Statue Is Not Merely about Reverence for Its Subject
It is tempting to consider what might have happened had Davis and Lee been hanged, the South fully brought to submission, perhaps even occupied without franchise until the North deemed it sufficiently transformed. But we must remember that the North was not without racism in this period. In fact, it is very easy to argue that almost every American politician or leader from 1877 to 1964 was complicit in the terrors of Jim Crow, which were not exactly a secret. Many of those leaders have their own statues.
When the South began erecting monuments to their treason and the federal government did little to stop them, they often spared no expense to create remarkable works of public art. The aforementioned statue of Lee in Richmond was made by the French artist Antonin Mercie, whose work can also be seen in the Louvre.
The double equestrian statue of Lee and Stonewall Jackson removed from Baltimore last week was the work of Laura Gardin Fraser, a woman who beat out five acclaimed male sculptors to win the commission in 1936. This was not the first time a government decided to obscure her work. In 1932 she won a competition to design the new quarter coin featuring George Washington, but Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon ignored the result and chose the design of a man instead.
All of this is to say that a statue is more than a symbol of reverence towards the person depicted. It is also public art and a way that a community displays its culture and values. For multiple generations after Reconstruction, until very recently, many Southern communities chose the Confederacy as their way to do that. So when we tear down a statue, we are not merely condemning the subject, but the entire community, in this case several generations of Southern culture, including millions of people.
It’s Not the Person, But All He Represents
When one argues that so and so general was a traitor to a horrible cause that lost, it doesn’t necessarily address the concerns of some of the many people (according to NPR, 62 percent of Americans) who want the statues to remain. It’s not the insult to the subject; it’s the insult to Southern culture in general. Maybe that is fair; maybe the South from Reconstruction until the 1960s should be seen as an evil and immoral place only to be whispered about and condemned. But if so, let’s be upfront about what is really being punished.
There is also a physical link to history to consider. These are statues that people’s great-great-great grandparents walked by. In many cases they are a showpiece of a town. All of us live in the physical environment created by those who came before us. Seeing old things left specifically for posterity reminds us of our own fleeting time to make a mark on the world, and they help us understand that previous time.
When the Taliban destroys ancient monuments, they deprive not only us but also future generations from studying those monuments. During the Protestant Reformation much Catholic art was destroyed. It is not difficult to imagine that, had the Vatican fallen, today there would be no Pieta or Sistine Chapel because they offended the sensibilities of that time.
For us to decide that 2017 is the time to determine whether future generations experience art and symbolism that has stood for 100 years is a shocking display of arrogance. What evidence do we have that our own morals and sensibilities are so pure that we may take such judgments upon ourselves?
The debate we are having is much larger than a question of whether men like Lee should be respected or scorned. There is certainly ample evidence for the latter. The question is whether we should erase 100 years of culture, a culture that was victorious in maintaining itself despite losing the Civil War, because we find that culture abhorrent.
The time to ban statues of Confederates and Confederate monuments was 1865. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the Union turned a blind eye to racism and lynching, and allowed a myth of a noble Lost Cause to grow and come to define Southern culture. That can’t be undone. That sin was committed, and it wasn’t just committed by the South.