Discover more from A User's Guide to History
A simple solution to America's statue problem
Don't crate 'em, date 'em
America has a serious statue problem. For centuries, distinguished figures in the history of the country have been commemorated with statues, but during recent years statues have been coming down faster than they have been going up. Confederate leaders and soldiers have received the greatest negative attention, starting with Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and proceeding to anonymous representations of the Confederate rank and file. But many other figures deemed objectionable on one count or another - Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and even Abraham Lincoln - have had their likenesses removed from public view.
The removals beget more removals. Each act of iconoclasm inspires further reconsideration of the past and fresh indictments of figures once honored but now deemed wanting.
Where will it end? Will it end, short of a statue-free landscape? Have there ever lived men and women accomplished enough to rate statues yet with no blemishes on their character?
I happen to like statues. I think they serve as reminders that we are not the first generation to walk the earth. And I don’t want to see them all removed.
For this reason I propose a simple solution to America’s statue problem: Leave the statues in place, but to each one append a small plaque indicating the year in which the statue was erected.
That's it. Just the year. Post it, then walk away.
This would accomplish two things. First, it would make clear that the current generation is not responsible for the existence of any given statue and therefore does not necessarily endorse the values the statue represents. The statue is an artifact of an earlier time.
Second, the dated statues taken collectively would afford a public lesson in the evolution of American values over time.
The practical merit of this solution is that it would end the arguing about who stays up and who goes down. Otherwise the argument will never end, as the standards of judgment keep changing. Every statue gets a date stamp; no statue is removed.
The philosophical merit of this solution is that it reminds us that we cannot undo the misdeeds - or the good deeds, for that matter - of the past. The past happened. Rather than waste our energy on vain efforts to pretend it didn’t, we should take care to learn from it.
Some say the bad statues should be crated up and moved to museums. This is no solution. First, we’d still have to argue about which statues stay and which go to museums. Second, statues in museums might as well be in witness-protection programs. Museum-goers are a very small fraction of the number of people who see public statues. The historical lessons the statues have to teach would be largely lost. Third, most of the statues removed never actually make it to museums. Instead they wind up in warehouses or junkyards.
Some people advocate explanatory plaques added to statues. This suffers from the same selection problem just mentioned: which statues require the plaques? Moreover, writing the explanations becomes as contentious as the statues themselves. Drafting, editing, vetting and manufacturing the explanatory plaques consume a great deal of time and resources. By contrast, the simple date plaques, even if universally applied, would be a bargain.
Some say that the mere presence of a statue can cause offense. There is no reason this should be so, once people stop imputing present motive to these relics of the past. If a statue of Columbus reminds some Native Americans of the effects of European contact on their ancestors, the fault lies not with the statue but with the history it embodies. Insisting that the statue be removed is akin to requiring that the corresponding chapters be torn from history books.
The bad lessons the statues teach are as important as the good ones, for the two are inextricably linked. I work at the University of Texas at Austin. Early in the twentieth century, the university erected statues of several Confederate leaders. Starting starting at the end of the century, it erected statues of Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Barbara Jordan, an African-American Texas congresswoman. If all the statues had been clearly dated, students and visitors to the campus would have received a visual education in the changing values of the university leadership. They would have seen that white supremacists held sway a hundred years ago, but that in the last two decades the university celebrated the very sorts of people the white supremacists despised.
This opportunity was squandered. The Confederate statues were taken down, in the process depriving the King, Chavez and Jordan statues of crucial historical context. A visitor to the campus today might well conclude that the values of those three were always the values honored on campus. Nothing could be further from the truth, and almost nothing more demeaning of the accomplishments of those three.
Statues don’t speak, but they do have a story to tell. If we keep removing parts of the story, it no longer makes sense. On the other hand, by the simple expedient of dating the statues, we give it more explanatory power than ever.