The Removal of Confederate Statues: A Look at the Issues
Earlier this week, we asked three of our staff writers to answer these fundamental questions regarding the removal of Confederate Statues, a national topic of conversation. Below, read the responses of Robert Brooks, our Senior Hamilton-Madison Fellow, Han Le, and Jack Magruder, Featured Staff Writers.
What do you consider to be the strongest argument for keeping the statues of prominent leaders of the Confederacy intact? For removing them? If the statues are to be taken down, do you see another use for them, or do they simply have no place today?
Robert Brooks: The national debate about Confederate monuments in this country is more about the relationships we have with our neighbors and fellow citizens than it is about stone or metal carvings that add decoration to traffic circles. We should remove these statues for no other reason than they reasonably offend Americans of color. As a proud Southerner and appreciator of Southern heritage I do not see these monuments as historically educational, but rather as a focal point where we, as Americans, can make a small (and easy) step towards healing one of the oldest social cleavages in this country. That being said, I believe it is important to have an immediate replacement for those monuments, lest our cities and towns resemble the aftermath of some failed state.
Han Le: The strongest argument to preserve the statues of these prominent Confederate leaders is that while what they stood for may be unacceptable today, they stood for the values of our country in what was right then, as well as preserved the rights and freedom of half of the nation’s citizens then. If these statues were to be removed, they should at the very least be preserved in museums today, as is World War II memorabilia despite the horrors that occurred during the Holocaust. America is made of its history, and to pretend our nation was founded without all parts of its history is disrespectful to its past. We should embrace what we have been through and as a remembrance, let the statues stand to represent what we have overcome as a nation.
Jack Magruder: The events of Charlottesville have displayed how easily a sane cultural argument can be hijacked by a violent, disruptive minority. The white supremacists, Neo-Nazis and their self-described ‘alt-right’ allies are providing the American Left with ammunition to prove the fallacy-ridden argument that all conservatives are racists. That being said, most of us who believe the Confederate statues should remain simply point out that history occurred, whether we like it or not, and physical, tangible reminders of history, however painful, remind us of our mistakes lest we repeat them. However, these statues and memorials should placed deliberately and in a geographic location that holds significance to the figure in whose honor the memorial is placed. Our guiding ideal should be awareness of our imperfect history, as men and women mindful of our failures who are intent on holding civility to one another in the highest regard.
The argument has been made that the removal of confederate statues leads to a “slippery slope,” in which we might come to remove statues and memorials to prominent slave holders such as the Founding Fathers. What do you make of the "slippery slope" argument? Is this a concern to you? If so, how ought it be addressed?
Robert Brooks: In a world plagued by a lack of political moderation, the slippery slope argument surrounding Confederate Monuments is the most worrisome. Anyone who confuses the reputation of the remarkable heroes who founded this country with those who sought to tear it apart over the repulsive institution of slavery require a serious realignment of political values. To discount and discredit the monumental accomplishments of our Founding Fathers because they were born into a time where slavery was (tragically) the social norm marks a point where moderation must be called for.
Han Le: Our Founding Fathers founded the nation that we know as America today, and at the time while they owned slaves, it was legal and we have come a long way since then. To reprimand them for what was at the time socially acceptable is to, for example, reprimand the Egyptians for owning slaves and dishonoring their past. We cannot change the past or remove it; rather than erase all of the good that came from them, we should instead be educated about the good and the bad and keep them as the Founding Fathers that created the nation we live in today.
Jack Magruder: The argument of a “slippery slope” is both correct and two-fold. We too often judge historical characters by our current cultural and moral standards, rather than considering the cultural context in which they existed. Firstly, if pertinent statues of Robert E. Lee are to be removed because of his role in the Confederacy, which stood for slavery, what will happen to the statues of great American figures including Washington, Jefferson and Franklin (all of whom were slave-owners)? Are their ideals now invalid and irrelevant simply because they existed in a time period with a different, yet admittedly immoral, social hierarchy? I certainly say not, as these men were some of the most enlightened political thinkers the world has ever seen. Secondly, it is imperative that historical thinkers and academics alike separate the man from his ideals, as not doing so would create a culture of intellectual subjectivity, with no moral absolutes. If we begin to question the very foundations of our republican government, we can be sure of nothing. If statues of Lee begin to come down, who possesses the authority to say that the statues of slave-owning Washington and Jefferson are to remain?
How ought we measure the achievements of an individual against any shortcomings in considering their memorialization? Is it enough for an individual to be, for example, a successful military leader or political figure? Or must they be virtuous in private life as well?
Robert Brooks: In arguments such as this, many people seem to forget the old adage that “no body is perfect.” History is rife with individuals who are often regarded as heroes but lived morally dubious lives. John F. Kennedy, a man who as President stared down nuclear war with the USSR and began the legislative campaign for the Civil Rights Act, was a known adulterer who also lied to the American people about his degenerative illness during his campaign for office. Winston Churchill, who heroically led the U.K through the entirety of WWII, was a raging alcoholic and narcissist. Do we berate them for their human faults or do we praise them for their tremendous leadership in the toughest of times? In the same vein we cannot fully blame our founding fathers for not being perfectly virtuous, especially in a time where racism and bigotry was a social norm not only in the U.S but abroad as well.
Han Le: No human being is perfect. To be virtuous is subjective, therefore achievements should be recognized as they are; if someone is great at something, let them be recognized for that something. To discredit their work because of other factors is unfair in itself, and if that were the case then judge one, judge all.
Jack Magruder: Judgement of achievements attributed to any great man or woman should be derived from the results of their actions. If personal flaws plagued the person being considered for memorialization, we must raise an unfortunately vague and subjective question: did this person’s flaws come into play into major decisions, or were scandals attached to this person at any time that brought into question his or her honesty and integrity? For example, many consider Franklin D. Roosevelt a great historical character, but he was a rampant womanizer and an unfaithful husband to his wife. However, those who memorialize him focus on his work leading the United States through the Great Depression and majority of World War II as his infidelities played no role in his professional capacity. Though in a moral sense, virtuous behavior should be emphasized if someone is to be memorialized, this righteous conduct as a political or military leader is clearly more important when considering that person’s worthiness of commemoration.