Donald Trump has a point when he asks, with respect to the tearing down of Confederate statues: ‘Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?’.
The reason he has a point is the rationale being advanced by many advocates for removing such monuments: that the individuals depicted were racist or, in some cases, slaveholders. ‘Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will be removed from the CUNY hall of great Americans because New York stands against racism,’ New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted. ‘Confederate statues are all about racism,’ declares Kevin Drum of Mother Jones. Karen L. Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, insists that, ‘The whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy.’
Well, not the whole point. For it’s more than anti-black racism that inspired the erection of so many statues and monuments memorialising the Confederacy, the vast majority of which were built many decades after slavery was outlawed. Sympathy for treason against the United States, which is what the Civil War (or War of Southern Aggression, as I like to call it) ultimately amounted to, was another motivating factor. And treason, not racism, must be the criteria by which we determine whether to remove statues, monuments and other insignia from public property.
To use any other benchmark – like the attitudes held by historical figures, or even whether they owned slaves – is to fall victim to a dangerous presentism that would effectively stigmatise each and every American of note from the founding of the United States up until the 1990s (and in some cases the current day) as beyond the moral pale. Yes, Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. But they also laid the foundations for a democratic republican form of government – theretofore unknown to humankind – which provided the tools for the eventual freedom of those slaves.
It would take several generations before the declaration that ‘All men are created equal’ would be fully realised to include blacks (and several more generations until it encompassed women). But in 1776, just proclaiming these words was a revolutionary act of world-altering importance. What distinguishes Washington and Jefferson from Robert E. Lee is that, while all these men held racial views that we rightly consider abominable today (but which were all-too-common during their time), it was only the last figure who took up arms against his own country.
By obliterating this distinction, many figures in ‘the Resistance’ are playing right into Trump’s hands. Recently on CNN, Democratic analyst Angela Rye insisted, ‘I don’t care if it’s a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue or a Robert E. Lee statue, they all need to come down.’
Never mind how such talk is so politically suicidal for Democrats that Steve Bannon himself might have devised it; why stop with the father of the nation and the author of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most important document ever written in the history of human freedom? Last month, graffiti was spray-painted onto the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and a Lincoln bust was vandalised in Chicago. Abraham Lincoln, of course, was the president who freed the slaves. But his views about African-Americans would make him a troglodyte today. If we go by Governor Cuomo’s logic, there is no reason not to remove statues of Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman or pretty much any individual constructed before 2017, so infinite are the ways in which the opinions and actions of flawed historical figures might conceivably ‘offend’ someone today.
Consider: FDR may have steered the country beyond the Great Depression and led it through a war to defend civilisation from barbarism, but he also interned Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military and recognised the state of Israel, but he also privately expressed anti-Semitic views. Heaven knows what these men thought about gay marriage, never mind the issue of transgender-friendly bathrooms.
While the moral and civic imperative for relocating statues honouring the Confederacy is sound, the way in which this process is currently playing out – namely, through violent iconoclasm – threatens our social fabric and chips away at Americans’ capacity for self-government. The United States is a country governed by the rule of law; it is respect for the legal process that distinguishes us from places like Russia or Yemen, where leaders act with impunity and rival tribes compete for power. In our system, laws are passed by democratically elected legislatures accountable to the people, adjudicated by an independent judiciary, and enforced by police. None of these institutions are perfect – far from it – but it is this very array of institutions, procedures and checks on power that save us from the alternatives: arbitrary rule by a dictator or the whims of the mob. And in the images of rampaging throngs tearing down statues on a whim, it is the spectre of the latter that haunts us.