Russell Shorto

Statues and Us

In July 1776, after George Washington had the Declaration of Independence read to his troops gathered in lower Manhattan, some of the men responded by racing off down Broadway, where they pulled down the statue of King George III that stood outside the British fort and cut its head off. Washington approved of the “Zeal in the public cause” but was outraged at the disorder. He didn’t question the necessity of the act but he scolded that it should have been done “by the proper authorities.” At the other end of his military career, the man who was now becoming recognized as the father of a new nation expressed naked pleasure at being asked to sit for a statue of his own likeness. While admitting he was no artist, he spent time pondering the appearance of a statue that was intended to represent the foundation on which American society would be built.

Statues mattered to the first president. They matter too to the forty-fifth.

If you work from the premise that Donald Trump has within him a need to sow chaos, it suddenly seems obvious that he would hit on the issue of Confederate statues. Statues memorialize, and what is memorialized in these hunks of bronze that have quietly populated the landscape, more even than the hidebound gentlemen they depict, is the schizophrenia that lies at the heart of American society. “So this week it is Robert E. Lee,” intoned the chief executive last week. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” A child can easily understand that there is a mathematical contradiction in a sitting president lumping together the founder of the nation and the general who led a civil war against that nation. It seems to be part of a series of acts intended to rend American society. And it is in a sense the most cutting of those acts, for the statue controversy sits directly on the fault line that divides us. It cleaves. It pushes elemental buttons.

The outrage at Trump’s comments, and over the chaos in Charlottesville, and over the white supremacist rallies in other cities, seems to be what Trump wants. But it is also what the country needs as it tries to deal with the riddle of Trump himself.

There’s one sense in which it is appropriate to put Washington and Lee together. Both understood the stakes involved in their separate acts of rebellion. Washington was, through his early adulthood, a proud and loyal British subject. Along with many others, he slowly came to the perilous conclusion that the American colonies needed to break free from the mother country. He knew the decision was all-or-nothing. Evidence for the soberness of his awareness of the consequences of his decision is the fact that he had a backup plan in case the Americans lost the war. He owned lands in the wilderness of the “Ohio Country”; “in the worst event,” he told his brother-in-law, “they will serve for an Asylum.” Washington was existentially aware, in other words, that if things went against his cause he would rightly be considered a traitor.

Robert E. Lee made a similarly arduous decision to break with the country he had long served. He too understood the consequences. Losing would mean being branded a traitor. After the war, he opposed efforts to memorialize Confederate leaders, on the grounds that the nation had to heal its divisions.

History sided with Washington’s rebellion and against Lee’s. But America never came to terms with that fact. There is a long tradition of putting the two men in the same category, that of “great American leaders.” We can debate such things, we can find ways to explore and appreciate the complexity of Lee and what he represents, or of Stonewall Jackson, or even, perhaps, of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court justice who penned the decision in the Dred Scott case, employing reason in the service of unreason to argue that certain Americans were not entitled to citizenship on account of skin color.

But statues are different. Statues aren’t arguments; they aren’t in the same category with words in essays or even plaques on walls. The phrase “on a pedestal” connotes honoring, holding in reverence. There are manifold ways of exploring and declaring the complexity of American history, and they should be explored and declared ad infinitum. But statues mean something else, and, as cities around the country are suddenly appreciating, now is the time to reckon with that. We have to know who we are and who we are not.

Trump, for all his seeming malevolence toward American society, does us a service. He is forcing us to reckon with an ugliness in our collective soul that we have long preferred to paper over. Erecting the statues was an effort not just to assuage wounds but to appease that ugliness. A large chunk of American society is not only fundamentally racist and nativist but it holds that these are defining features of America itself. The argument for maintaining statues of Confederate figures has had many rationalizations: they represent local history, not larger issues; they are symbols of defiance, which is itself a hallowed American tradition. But the defiance, local or otherwise, is of a set of principles that must be upheld if the country is to stand for anything.

Some people have pointed to a seeming contradiction in the call to bring down Confederate statues. Haven’t certain liberals at times demanded the removal of statues of Washington himself, and of Thomas Jefferson, who were slaveowners? Where, the reasoning goes, will it end? Again, debate is a fine thing. But the necessary real-world solution to the statue controversy is at long last to side with history. We may choose to honor American leaders even as we study their manifold flaws; in time we may decide that, with some, their flaws outweigh the achievements. But leaders who fought against the country, while they may be deserving of consideration of one sort or another, don’t deserve to be honored, and they never did. In the darkness of these times there is a real feeling of light and promise in the rolling wave of statue topplings around the country. It is being done as Washington would have had it — in an orderly way, by governmental authorities who are mindful of what we stand for as a country. Pulling these figures off their pedestals is a necessary step to treating the national schizophrenia of which Trump’s presidency is itself an outgrowth.

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About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar